SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's only Democrat in Congress predicted he'd leave Saturday's state Democratic Party convention as the party's 2nd District nominee.
Instead, Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, faces his first-ever primary runoff, against a progressive, grass-roots challenger, Claudia Wright.
While Matheson wasn't facing the anti-incumbent fervor that permeated the GOP gathering at the other side of the Salt Palace Convention Center, his stance of confidence before the vote softened into a slightly less assertive look into the future after delegate results were announced.
"I'm think it's time for a primary, and I always look forward to campaigning," Matheson said.
Second District Democratic delegates gave Matheson a 55 percent-45 percent edge over Wright, but he couldn't garner the 60 percent required to avoid a head-to-head challenge on June 22.
In Wright, Matheson will face a challenger who shares many of the same traditional Democratic values but who called health care reform her No. 1 priority in a speech to delegates. Matheson's failure to support federal Democratic health care reform bills both last fall and this spring angered many in the party and sparked a wave of anti-Matheson sentiment at statewide caucus meetings in March. Matheson, however, said the positions he's taken on other issues will bring him victory this summer.
"I will just run on my record," Matheson said. "I'm proud of what I've done. I have a good record of accomplishments and think most people in the 2nd District feel good about it as well."
Wright and her supporters, however, think those voters are ready for a new face in Utah's only federal-level Democratic seat.
"I think there's a national trend basically to get rid of politics as usual," she said between hugging supporters lining up to congratulate her.
One of those supporters, Joyce Spinelli of Ivins, said Wright won because voters "lost trust in 'old guard' politics" and are looking for someone they can believe in.
Wright, a first-time candidate, credited her long experience as a history teacher with giving her the skill to organize an effective grass-roots campaign that tapped into the dissatisfaction with Matheson.
Asked if she was surprised by the outcome of the vote, Wright answered simply, "No." Wright said she believes she'll beat Matheson in the primary by winning the votes of Democrats who see him as leaning too far right.
Her campaign manager, Michael Picardi, complained that the state party favored Matheson at a Democratic fundraising dinner Friday night and from the podium Saturday. "We were extremely disappointed," Picardi said.
Todd Taylor, executive director of the state Democratic Party, said the keynote speaker at the dinner and the convention, U.S. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, "definitely had his own interests" in backing Matheson. Hoyer praised Matheson's support of some key Democratic issues and warned "as Democrats, we cannot afford to make a large tent a small tent."
The last time the Democrats had a primary in a congressional race was in 2002, when Donald Dunn faced off against Dave Thomas for the 1st District seat later won by Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, according to Taylor.
"I always thought it was possible he would get through this without facing a primary," Taylor said, blaming Matheson's final vote against the Democratic health care plan for forcing a runoff.
Wright, 61, predicted last week she would make it to the primary. A retired schoolteacher of 31 years who still teaches some gender issues college courses, she describes herself as "lesbian, open about it" who lives with her partner in Holladay.
She was not the first choice of progressive Democrats who gathered in January to choose a candidate to run against Matheson. But Wright was named to replace that candidate when he dropped out.
Republican Sheryl Allen was cheered Saturday at the convention as the Democrats' lieutenant governor candidate.
"We can do better," Allen shouted from the podium after telling the delegates their feelings toward her are "fully reciprocated along with a bucketful of respect for you and what you do."
The sign waving and applause Allen received were just what the Democrats' candidate for governor, Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon, was hoping for.
Corroon was touted repeatedly during the convention as the party's best hope in the November election.
He told the enthusiastic delegates it has been almost 30 years "of only one voice coming from our state Capitol. … Our state cannot afford just one voice."
The last time Utahns elected a Democrat governor was in the 1980s when Scott Matheson won a second term.
Corroon said he and Allen were "ready to go" as the delegates sprang to their feet and cheered what is the state's first bipartisan gubernatorial ticket.
Choosing Allen as his running mate last week was an effort by Corroon to focus new attention on his candidacy. The most recent Deseret News/KSL-TV poll showed he trails GOP Gov. Gary Herbert by some 20 points.
Don Miller, a delegate from St. George, said he believes having a Republican on the ticket will help Democrats at the polls in November.
"It's a smart, brave thing to do," Miller said. "It indicates a willingness to take a great step forward, to try something new and different."
Stephanie Pace, a progressive Democrat from Salt Lake City, said she respects Allen and believes others who think like her do, too.
"She speaks the language of progress," Pace said of Allen. "I don't know why she calls herself a Republican."35 comments on this story
In other intra-party races, Salt Lake businessman and Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control board chairman Sam Granato will square off with a yet to be determined GOP candidate for Sen. Bob Bennett's former seat in November. Granato took 77.5 percent of the delegate vote over accountant Christopher Stout.
And, the Utah House District 25 seat vacated by retiring Rep. Chris Johnson, D-Salt Lake, will be up for grabs in a primary race between Anthony Kaye and Joel Briscoe. Kaye and Briscoe were the top two vote-getters in a four-candidate field that also included John Netto and Dixon Hindley vying to represent the Salt Lake district that's a long-time Democratic stronghold.
Contributing: Josh Smith