Matheson Takes Strong First Step on 2002 Path

Republicans at the Utah State Legislature intentionally dealt Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, a poor hand with redistricting. But despite attempts to place him in an un-winnable district, Matheson will again triumph.

Republican leaders succeeded in significantly increasing the number of conservative voters in Utah?s 2nd Congressional District. For all state and county races, the average Republican performance in the 574 precincts comprising Matheson?s old district was approximately 57 percent. His new district is more than 70 percent Republican.

As a result, Matheson?s road to re-election appears substantially more treacherous. Yet he will frustrate the GOP?s brass, just as he did by trouncing Derek Smith last November. And Matheson?s coming victory may do more than simply retain a lone Democratic seat in Utah?s highly conservative congressional delegation. Though the current scenario looks bleak for Democrats, and the future remains ever uncertain, the apparent redistricting blackout yields a sliver of hope. A Matheson-lead Democratic revival in areas outside of Salt Lake County is possible.

First, Matheson must win re election. This he will do.

In a general sense, 2002 will be the year of the incumbent. Office holders are likely to see strong support from a public suddenly seeking unity and national pride. The sentiment sweeping the country since Sept. 11 may become less passionate in coming months, but it will not fully subside.

This does not mean the terrorist attacks buried partisanship. But for the near future, unity overrides divisiveness. As an incumbent, Matheson owns a distinct advantage over any contender the GOP hurls at him.

Riding the public tide of support for American institutions, Matheson will not whither and die in rural Utah, despite Republican hopes.

Matheson?s new district includes all of eastern Utah, stretching south to the Arizona border. The district wraps around the southern end of the state, running from Colorado to Nevada. Compare this with the old second district, which citizens could see entirely from behind the state Capitol.

Until now, the most rural community in the 2nd district was Bluffdale, a pseudo-country town where residents ride horses down the sidewalk and pretend Redwood Road doesn?t run through their neighborhood.

Now Matheson will represent authentic rural folk?John Wayne look-a-likes who understand that communists are running the State Department. When was the last time these people voted for a Democrat? The year was 1980, to be precise. And the candidate?s last name was Matheson.

Scott Matheson was the last Democrat to inhabit the Utah governor?s office. He enjoyed solid support from rural Utahns. And if there is one thing rural Utahns like, it?s tradition.

Voting for a Matheson will feel more comfortable than that old pair of cowboy boots.

The Matheson family hails from Parowan, a community nestled in Iron County. Voters there will find Matheson the natural choice. A strong Democratic base also exists in Carbon County.

The challenge of securing support in 12 additional rural counties will test Matheson?s ability. But his moderate votes, matched with the family name and power of incumbency, make Matheson much stronger than Republican mapmakers anticipate.

In the end, Republicans may get substantially more than they bargained for. When Matheson prevails 13 months from now, he will prove that Democrats can win outside Salt Lake County.

Matheson will counter the anti Democratic propaganda that Republicans have flung around the state for years. Rural voters will realize that most Utah Democrats are moderate and sensible, contrary to the images of paganism and Bolshevism pinned on them by ridiculously partisan conservative mouthpieces.

Instead of letting sleeping dogs lie, Republicans just gave rural Utahns the one thing they haven?t had in years?a strong Democrat to vote for.

Beyond the vast strips of eastern and central Utah, much of it inhospitable land forsaken by God, the new second district also includes a portion of Utah County. Many call it the most conservative spot in the nation. Yet the Utah County Democratic Party has organized to the point that it is stronger than at any moment in recent memory.

This absolutely does not mean the time is ripe for a takeover?Republicans in Utah County still swept their Democratic rivals last November.

But Matheson is now a focal point around who Utah County Democrats can rally. Fund-raising, volunteer mobilization and voter turnout for Democrats are sure to benefit from Matheson?s presence. Perhaps some residents will even do the unthinkable: overcome their fear and admit publicly that they are Democrats.

When Matheson wins in 2002, securing loyalty from sections of rural Utah and northern Utah County, the seeds will be sewn for new Democratic life. If Matheson galvanizes enough support in his new district, he will have the credentials to run for governor in 2008, perhaps even 2004.

Currently, the notion of a Democrat in the governor?s mansion seems far-fetched. But no one can be certain exactly what kind of Pandora?s box the Republicans have opened here.

The consequences of redistricting may not be immediate. Republican incumbents will benefit from the same national pride that will carry Matheson to re-election. But down the road, Republicans may regret giving voters in rural areas the opportunity to vote for Matheson.

As for the man himself, Jim Matheson certainly did not ask for this burden. Being the savior of the Democratic Party in Utah was never his goal. And he has never mentioned any ambitions for governor or other higher offices.

But sometimes you play with the cards you are dealt. Time may reveal that Utah voters seek a new deal because they have grown tired of a one-sided political game.

James welcomes feedback at:[email protected] or send letters to the editor to: [email protected].