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Poll says Rep. Jim Matheson could beat Sen. Orrin Hatch next year

Published: Sunday, Aug. 7 2011 12:46 a.m. MDT

Former Rep. Chris Cannon, Sen. Orrin Hatch, Rep. Jim Matheson and Rep. Rob Bishop greet each other in 2004.

Laura Seitz, All

SALT LAKE CITY — When polling places closed across Utah at 8 p.m. on Election Day last year, one race in particular was too close to call. The battle for Utah's 2nd Congressional District was going down to the wire.

For much of the day exit polling had Democratic incumbent Rep. Jim Matheson trailing Republican challenger Morgan Philpot. By midnight, reporting precincts showed the two men deadlocked.

Matheson eventually pulled ahead to notch a narrow victory. Having survived that close call, Matheson now poses a very serious triple threat to Utah Republicans: the six-term Congressman is openly flirting with the possibilities of running for governor, the U.S. Senate or re-election in 2012.

"I don't think that the activists in the Republican Party reflect the opinion of the average Utah Republicans," Matheson told the Deseret News. "So I think that there is an opportunity for voices of reason to succeed in Utah regardless of party label. … In this world of a more and more polarized debate, most people want elected officials to be constructive and pragmatic and try to solve problems and make progress."

Matheson represents what is becoming an increasing rare breed in national politics: a moderate who is able to reach across party lines and get things done. For Matheson, his "yes" vote to raise the debt ceiling on Aug. 1 is a prime example of the problem-solving pragmatism he believes most voters crave. Unlike Utah's four Republicans in Congress, Matheson decided as a matter of principle that a flawed bill to increase the debt limit was immensely better than the alternative — a government default.

"The moderates in both the Republican and Democratic Parties are going to be the ones who rally around a bipartisan compromise agreement that moves legislation forward, and that's exactly what happened with the (debt ceiling) proposal," Matheson said. "I think it was more than just kicking the can down the road; I think it was a legitimate step. It does not solve the problem, though — there are many difficult decisions that continue to lie ahead. But, it prevented this country from defaulting on its obligations, because America just doesn't default. America stands by its obligations — that's what America does."

If the possibility of Matheson competing with the likes of Hatch or Chaffetz for a Senate seat in Republican-dominated Utah seems far-fetched, think again: a recent Deseret News/KSL-TV poll by Dan Jones & Associates showed a Matheson-Hatch matchup tied at 47 percent, and in another hypothetical Chaffetz barely led Matheson, 46 percent to 45 percent.

Those numbers reflect results that emerged earlier this year when BYU's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy asked Utah voters to rate political figures on a 1-to-100 favorability scale. Matheson scored 54.1 — ahead of every other Beehive State politician on the survey, including Chaffetz (52.1) and Hatch (48.2).

Matheson's appeal isn't limited to Democrats. Indeed, in his six Congressional races dating back to 2000, the Congressman's support among Republican voters has always topped 20 percent and even reached as high as 46.4 percent in the 2008 election.

"The magic for Matheson is his consistent ability to attract a substantial proportion of Republican votes," said Quin Monson, associate director of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy.

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