SALT LAKE CITY — Democratic state Sen. Luz Robles said Thursday she's challenging Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, because there's an opportunity for her party to reclaim his 2nd Congressional District seat.
"We're putting everything on the line," said Robles, who was first elected in 2008 to the Legislature from her Rose Park neighborhood. She is one of only five Democrats in the state Senate and serves as the minority caucus manager.
Robles won't formally announce her run until Tuesday, but is already focused on raising the $1 million she believes the race will cost and registering new voters in the district, which stretches from Davis to Washington counties.
The 2nd District had been represented by Utah's only Democrat in Congress, Rep. Jim Matheson, from 2000 until Matheson chose to run last year in the state's new 4th District.
Stewart secured his party's nomination last year in a controversial vote among more than a half-dozen contenders at the state GOP convention, then easily beat a former Democratic state lawmaker, Jay Seegmiller, in the general election.
Matheson faced a tough battle with Saratoga Springs Mayor Mia Love, who attracted national support from the GOP. Love has already announced she's taking on Matheson again in 2014.
The 4th District, which includes portions of western Salt Lake and Utah counties, is slightly more favorable to Democrats than the 2nd District, state Democratic Party Executive Director Matt Lyon said.
But Lyon said Democrats can count on support from 35 percent of the voters in the 2nd District, which includes nearly all of Salt Lake City, the state's Democratic stronghold.
Another 27 percent or so are seen as swing voters, he said, willing to vote either Republican or Democrat. Many of them are in Davis County, while the most conservative voters in the district are in Washington County, Lyon said.
"It's a Republican district," Robles said. "It's a big gap."
But it's a gap she and other Democrats believe can be closed by attracting new voters. Robles, a community development officer for Zions Bank, said she's excited to bring the perspective of a Latina candidate to the race.
"I know the citizens of Utah value that component," Robles said. "We do embrace different cultural identities here."
Her reason for taking on Stewart, Robles said, is because she sees him as too extreme on issues like climate change. Stewart, head of a House subcommittee on the environment, has expressed skepticism about global warming.
"Most American are tired of that. Most Utahns, too," Robles said of what she described as partisan positions. "Most Utahns are not so extreme. We're in the middle."
Stewart said in a statement he was proud to run on his record at what he called a critical time in the nation's history. "Utahns are looking for conservative leadership to solve very critical problems," he said.
State Democratic Party Chairman Jim Dabakis, who serves in the state Senate with Robles, said voters don't really know much about Stewart, the only freshman in the delegation.
Voters, Dabakis said, will come to see Stewart as "an extremist who doesn't really share Utah values."
State GOP Chairman James Evans, however, said Stewart is well-positioned to be re-elected because of the time he has spent with his constituents. "He stays in touch with his district on a daily basis," Evans said.
Still, the state Republican leader wouldn't rule out a GOP challenger for Stewart. "Look, we're the Republican Party," Evans said. "There are always challenges. It's just a given."
Kirk Jowers, head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics, said Stewart "has done a good job at being a solid member of Congress without giving people any reason to vote against him."
Jowers said even though Robles faces "an incredibly tough, uphill fight," he couldn't imagine a better Democratic candidate.
"She is not a sacrificial lamb and I think the race will be far more interesting than Republicans want," he said, especially if she is able to meet her fundraising goal of $1 million.
"I think that would be a jaw-dropping total for her and it would certainly make the race that much more competitive. I think if she raises a half million dollars, it makes her a very credible candidate."
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