Two Utah political heavyweights eyeing key races

Published: Thursday, June 9 2011 10:04 p.m. MDT

Jim Matheson

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Two of Utah's political heavyweights, Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson and GOP Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, said Thursday they're eyeing higher office.

Matheson, Utah's lone Democratic member of Congress, said he's looking at a bid for governor or even the U.S. Senate in addition to possibly running for a seventh term representing the 2nd District.

"I know I'm going to be running for office in Utah," Matheson said. "All three of those offices are still on the table."

Shurtleff, who just announced he is now cancer-free, told KSL Newsradio's Doug Wright he might run for Congress if he doesn't go after another term as attorney general or take a break from politics.

"There is politics in my future for sure," Shurtleff said, most likely in Washington, D.C. "I'm just trying to decide what's next."

Depending on what they decide, Matheson and Shurtleff could further shake up the political field for 2012. Candidates already are scrambling to position themselves now that Utah will have a new fourth congressional seat as a result of the most recent census.

If Matheson gets in the race to unseat GOP Gov. Gary Herbert or Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, that would mean his congressional seat would be open. The same would be true for the attorney general's office if Shurtleff steps out of that competition.

Matheson suggested Herbert and Hatch could be vulnerable enough to lose to a Democrat. Herbert was elected last year to serve the remainder of former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.'s term and Hatch has been in the Senate since 1976.

"I think it all depends on who's running against them," the congressman said. "But when I get involved in a political race, I always run to win. I feel pretty confident about the record I've established and how the people of Utah feel about me. I think if I'm in a race, I have a good opportunity."

What won't factor into his decision, Matheson said, is who else is in a race. "The decisions I make are based on … where I can best serve Utah," he said. "I'm not basing it on who I run against."

Shurtleff told the radio station he's ruled out a run against Herbert because his wife has no interest in serving as Utah's first lady. Shurtleff also insisted he won't run against Hatch, even though he said he's suggested to the senator it was time to retire.

"I have had a long-term, very close relationship with Sen. Hatch. He particularly on law enforcement issues has always been very responsive and very helpful," he said, adding he would not challenge Hatch "even though we disagree on some things."

What Shurtleff said he's most interested in at this point is Congress, even though he doesn't relish having to raise money to run for re-election every two years. "That would be the most plausible scenario for me," he said, even though, "the Senate is more desirable."

Shurtleff briefly joined the 2010 race to unseat former Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, but dropped out of that race because his daughter was entering substance abuse treatment. That seat was won by a political newcomer, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah.

Pollster Dan Jones said what happens next for both Matheson and Shurtleff likely hinges on how the Legislature's Redistricting Committee redraws the congressional boundaries to incorporate the new 4th District and adjust for population shifts.

"It comes down to the reapportionment," Jones said. "If there's a lot of gerrymandering, you're going to find some people running statewide that normally wouldn't because they had nothing to lose."

While that applies more to Matheson because Democrats have not won a statewide office since 1996, when Jan Graham won a second term as attorney general, Shurtleff, too, could be affected by how the districts are drawn.

The last time congressional and legislative boundaries were redrawn after the 2000 Census, Matheson's district was described as one of the most gerrymandered in the nation because it stretched down the state to include as many Republicans as possible.

Utah's other two congressmen, GOP Reps. Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz, are both being talked about as candidates for governor or the Senate, although neither has announced their plans for 2012.

There are also a number of Republicans, including several lawmakers such as Rep. Carl Wimmer of Herriman and Rep. Dave Clark of Santa Clara, who appear to be preparing for a congressional run.

Both Matheson and Shurtleff aren't in a hurry to declare their intentions. Matheson said he'll announce what office he'll seek by the end of the year while Shurtleff said he'll state his intentions by Sept. 1, to be fair to any candidates interested in running for attorney general.

Jones said Matheson and Shurtleff would be formidable candidates in any race but it's too soon to predict what will happen Election Day.

"There's always surprises," Jones said. "You've got a whole year to go."

Email: lisa@desnews.com

Twitter: dnewspolitics

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