SALT LAKE CITY — The mood hovered somewhere between dour, subdued and downright distraught Tuesday night in the downtown Marriott Hotel, chosen Election Night site of the Utah Democratic Party party, pardon the expression.
The scene was in sharp contrast to two years ago, when the 2008 election returns were greeted just down the street at the Radisson and Barack Obama's historic ascendency to the presidency triggered a Utah Democratic landslide — using the term relatively — that saw five seats gained in the Utah Legislature and no end of euphoria.
This time there was less to cheer about.
Nationally, the news on the big-screen TVs was all tea party this and tea party that, with Republicans, or what passes for Republicans these days, taking back the high ground in Washington.
It was like tuning all the television sets in Provo to the Utah-TCU game.
Locally, it was even worse. The Senate race? Projected Republican eight minutes after the polls closed. The governor's race? Projected gone to the Republicans minutes later. The 1st District congressional race? Ditto. The 3rd District congressional race? Over before it started.
The bad news was interrupted only briefly by the successes of Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder, prosecutor Sim Gill and clerk Sherrie Swensen, Democrats all. Still. A sheriff, a prosecutor and a clerk?
You could hear the ice melting in the glasses. Sales of the "What Happens in Arizona Stops in Arizona" T-shirts at the back table dragged to a standstill.
But then, out of the mists of despair, a reason — THE reason — for fighting the fight, for staying the course, for choosing the left, emerged.
At 9:07 p.m. Dan Jones projected Jim Matheson the winner for the 2nd Congressional District.
The Incredible Winning Machine, the Great Exception, the Secretariat of Utah Politics, had seemingly done it again in running his record to a projected 6-and-0.
Undefeated and still congressman.
Jim Matheson lives in the reddest state in the Union, he's a Democrat, and he is unbeatable.
Consider the history: in 2000 he won his first race for Congress by 15 points, 56 to 41 percent, over Republican Derek W. Smith.
Utah Republicans figured that was a) a fluke, and b) due largely to the fact that the 2nd District was enclosed entirely in Salt Lake County, loaded with Democrats.
So a Legislature loaded with Republicans changed the district's boundaries to include only part of Salt Lake County and all or parts of 14 mostly rural counties in eastern, southeastern and southwestern Utah.
Suddenly, Matheson's district comprised more than half the state, including some places so conservative they might be able to pronounce "Democrat" but they wouldn't say it out loud.
It almost worked, too. In the 2002 election, Republican challenger John Swallow received 109,123 votes to Matheson's 110,764. Matheson prevailed by a mere 1,641 votes.
But he won, and the next year, with no more boundary changes, he defeated Swallow in a rematch by 40,000 votes, winning by a 55 percent to 43 percent margin.
That was a nail-biter compared to the next two elections.
In 2006 Matheson defeated respected state lawmaker LaVar Christensen by nearly 50,000 votes in a 22-point landslide, 59 percent to 37 percent.
And in 2008 he defeated Republican Bill Dew by over 92,000 votes in winning by 28 points, 63 percent to 35 percent.
There was speculation that in 2010 the Republicans, rather than risk even more abuse, would nominate either a white flag or a sacrificial lamb. A real sacrificial lamb.
But they did not. This time they threw the kitchen sink at Matheson — a young (39 years old), impressive, well-spoken, sharp-looking guy with a huge smile, no discernible skeletons in the closet and, to boot, a history as a former intern in the Clinton White House who saw the error of his ways.
Providing the pollsters were right in their projections — and at press time with the incumbent leading by nine points it appeared they were right — Matheson was able to outlast the challenge.
At least Morgan Philpot made it a fight. The Republican wave sweeping the nation nudged him many percentage points closer to Matheson than anyone since Swallow.
But it appeared even the tea party revolt wasn't enough.
It may never be enough.
With a fourth congressional seat expected for Utah in 2012, it's widely believed that the Republican Legislature will make Democratic-leaning Salt Lake County its own district again — the 2nd District — meaning Matheson, if he wants to, could very well be Congressman for Life.9 comments on this story
Finally, at 9:51 p.m., a confident Matheson emerged into the hotel ballroom and climbed onto the stage.
He thanked the crowd. He thanked his volunteers and staff flanking him. Then to resounding cheers he said, "the people of Utah appreciate people who roll up their sleeves and go to work for them."
Ever the politician, he cautioned Democrats who had been waiting all night for something big to cheer about, "It isn't over. There are still votes to count."
But the party had finally begun.
Lee Benson's column runs Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Please send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.