Utah Rep. Jim Matheson spends big to fend off primary challenger, anti-establishment fever

June 14, 2010

Meet the latest House incumbent taking no chances in the volatile political environment.

His name is Rep. Jim Matheson (D-Utah), and he’s spending big money as he faces the first primary of his 10-year congressional career next Tuesday.

According to a financial report filed last week, Matheson has already spent nearly $800,000 on the race, including more than $300,000 on TV ads and nearly $100,000 on mail. All that money is going toward beating back an opponent — Claudia Wright — who has only raised $25,000 so far.

Matheson’s plight is similar to other moderate-to-conservative Democrats who voted against the party’s health care bill in March and, as a result, have drawn primary challengers.

Three others — North Carolina Reps. Larry Kissell and Heath Shuler as well as Pennyslvania Rep. Tim Holden — have all lost at least 35 percent of the vote to primary challengers with virtually no resources.

Last month, Matheson lost 45 percent of the vote at the state party convention to Wright, who is a retired schoolteacher who has made the incumbent’s health care vote the centerpiece of her campaign.

Because Matheson was unable to secure 60 percent of the vote, he was forced into a June 22 primary against Wright.

Matheson’s spending is a sign that he takes the primary seriously and his latest ad — in which Matheson plays up his vote in favor of expanding health care coverage to thousands of Utah children — is evidence that the her line of attack is hurting the incumbent.

Matheson’s aggressiveness seems aimed at leaving nothing to chance rather than born out of genuine fear for his political career.

But, here’s where things could get complicated:

* Crossover voters: Utah voters can choose whichever primary in which they want to cast a ballot and Republicans could run an Operation Chaos-like sabotage of the Democratic primary. There are a couple problems with that, though. One, there is a competitive GOP primary for the seat held by defeated Sen. Robert Bennett . And, second, it’s hard to see a large number of voters organizing such a concerted effort to oust an incumbent Democratic congressman without some broader coordination from national GOPers that, to date, has not developed.

* No historical model: Because of how small the state Democratic Party is and the state’s odd nominating process, there hasn’t been a Democratic primary in the 2nd district since 1996, so we don’t really know who is going to turn out.

* Low turnout: Regardless of who votes, we know turnout is going to be minuscule. Yes, there’s always low turnout in primaries. But there could be really low turnout in a Democratic House primary in such a Republican state. In the last primary in Matheson’s district 14 years ago, just 17,500 voters turned out.

Matheson is still the clear favorite, however.

His spending edge should not be underestimated particularly in a state like Utah. By comparison, self-funding Senate candidate Tim Bridgewater (R) has spent less than half as much as Matheson, and the other Senate hopeful, attorney Mike Lee (R), has likely spent far less as well (he hasn’t filed his most recent report yet).

Fortunately for Matheson, he has the bankroll to get past this kind of primary challenge and still be fine in a general election. Even with all the spending, he still had $1.1 million in his campaign account two weeks ago.

Republicans hope either a damaged Matheson or a very beatable Wright will emerge from the primary. If they get the latter, the race vaults to the top of the list of potential takeovers.

The GOP nominee, former state Rep. Morgan Philpot, isn’t raising much money himself. But in a district that gave Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) 58 percent of the vote in 2008, this one could become a target.

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