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Utah's Democratic Congressman Faces A GOP Anomaly

Utah Rep. Jim Matheson gave a victory speech after winning re-election in November 2010. He has consistently broken with Democratic Party lines and beat Republican challengers.
Colin E. Braley
/
AP
Utah Rep. Jim Matheson gave a victory speech after winning re-election in November 2010. He has consistently broken with Democratic Party lines and beat Republican challengers.

In Utah, the state's lone Democratic congressman is in a tough battle for a seventh term. Jim Matheson's opponent, Mia Love, has the support of national GOP superstars and, if elected, would become the first black Republican woman in Congress.

In a state where only about 25 percent of residents vote as Democrats, Matheson has successfully gotten enough Republicans to vote for him and keep him in office for the past 12 years. He can trace his political roots back to his father, Scott Matheson, the state's last Democratic governor.

"I remember, even though it was years ago, he'd say, 'You know, when you've got both the left and right mad at you, you're probably doing the right thing.' I think he just took a pragmatic approach to trying to do the right thing to help people," he says. "And that's my politics, and that's what I learned from him."

Part of Matheson's success has come from portraying his GOP challengers as too conservative, even for Utah. He says Love, who is mayor of Saratoga Springs, Utah, fits that mold.

"My opponent is beyond Tea Party-right. I think that it is all about the issues and the contrast between me being someone who puts Utah first versus someone who's just going to support the party line," he says.

At the state GOP convention earlier this year, Love soundly defeated the favored candidate, a former state legislator, to seize the party nomination. GOP superstars such as House Speaker John Boehner and Arizona Sen. John McCain made special trips to Utah to campaign for Love, and she won a speaking slot at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla.

"Mr. President, I'm here to tell you the American people are awake, and we're not buying what you're selling in 2012," she said in Tampa.

Since both Love and Matheson are Mormon, religion hasn't been an issue in the election. Still, Love is focusing her campaign on conservative themes.

"I do not think that Jim Matheson and the Democratic Party represent Utah's values. We believe in lower taxes, individual liberty, personal responsibility, fiscal discipline. And those are fundamental differences that we're going to discuss," she says.

Matheson, in turn, has attacked Love on her plan to reduce access to student loans and her efforts to raise taxes in Saratoga Springs. He skipped the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., rejected the party's endorsement of same-sex marriage. No high-profile Democrats have come to Utah on his behalf.

In a recent debate with Love broadcast on CBS affiliate KUTV in Salt Lake City, Matheson fended off his opponent's efforts to link him to President Obama's health care overhaul.

"In 2011, he voted against the repeal of Obamacare, and that has been his position until this spring," Love said.

"It's pretty clear that my opponent just hasn't done her homework and doesn't know my record," Matheson countered. "Quite candidly, we voted on Obamacare three different times because I'm on the committee where the bill came from. So I actually had a chance to vote and voted no well before anyone in the Utah delegation had an opportunity to even vote on the bill."

Matheson is a member of the House's conservative Blue Dog caucus and has opposed his own party on countless occasions. Quin Monson, director of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University, says Matheson really is an independent voice for Utah.

"If you look at his voting record, he's the most conservative Democrat in Congress, which puts him very much in the middle," Monson says.

A poll published in June by local news organizations put Matheson ahead of Love by 13 points. But just last week, the Love campaign released a poll conducted on behalf of the National Republican Congressional Committee suggesting that Love had surged to a 15-point lead. So it's clear, Monson says, the battle for voters' hearts and minds is still being fought.

"They're both following exactly the right strategy. He's trying to portray her as too extreme to keep those Republican voters, and she's attaching herself to Romney and all sorts of luminaries in an effort to get them back," he says.

And if Love does get those Republican voters back, it could make Utah home to a one-party congressional delegation.

Copyright 2012 KUER 90.1

Terry Gildea comes to KUER from San Antonio where he spent four years as a reporter and host at Texas Public Radio. While at KSTX, he created, produced and hosted the station's first local talk show, The Source. He covered San Antonio's military community for the station and for NPR's Impact of War Project. Terry's features on wounded warriors, families on the home front and veterans navigating life after war have aired on Morning Edition, Weekend Edition and All Things Considered. His half-hour radio documentary exploring the burn unit at Brooke Army Medical Center was honored by the Houston Press and the Texas Associated Press Broadcasters. Prior to his position in San Antonio, Terry covered Congress for two years with Capitol News Connection and Public Radio International . He holds a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Washington and a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. Terry enjoys spending time with his wife and two young sons, fixing bicycles and rooting for his hometown Seattle Mariners.

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