Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: Utah politicos abuzz with Matheson retirement announcement

Published: Sunday, Dec. 22 2013 12:00 a.m. MST

Republican activists and liberal Democrats got an early Christmas gift — the announcement that Fourth District Congressman Jim Matheson will retire in 2014.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

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Republican activists and liberal Democrats got an early Christmas gift — the announcement that Fourth District Congressman Jim Matheson will retire in 2014. We are hoping the many politicos' tongues that are wagging will drive the bad air from the Wasatch Front.

Why did Matheson drop out? Was he worried about losing to Saratoga Springs Mayor Mia Love or some other Republican?

Pignanelli: "Politics, like theater, is one of those things where you've got to be wise enough to know when to leave." — Governor Richard Lamm Recent polls demonstrate Matheson’s maverick style remains popular with Utahns. But he heard the noble voice that it was time to go. (I heard a similar call urging my retirement, but it was a high screech with insults).

Matheson was gearing up for an intraparty convention fight. He was jettisoning the Obamacare and budget deficit baggage (that he didn't cause) to secure a victory in November 2014. But he would return to Congress as a "minority in a minority" (a.k.a conservative Democrat; an endangered species in the nation's capital).

Among Matheson’s intellectual assets is a pragmatic thought process. It was time to go and pursue other options. Our country needs more politicians who refuse to seek power just for the sake of a title.

Webb: Matheson could probably win again in 2014, having survived (in some cases, barely) everything the Republicans could throw at him — redistricting, immense national resources, a very unpopular Democratic president, and coping with Utah adopted son Mitt Romney at the top of the GOP ticket.

But fighting a tough battle every two years and being in perpetual campaign/fundraising mode would get old for anyone. I expect we haven’t seen the last of Matheson. He retires as one of Utah’s most popular current politicians. It’s tough for a Democrat to win statewide, but Utahns vote for their governor with a less partisan mindset than for members of Congress. Matheson’s retirement from Congress could be a headache for Gov. Gary Herbert, who is up for re-election in 2016.

Is Mayor Love the likely GOP nominee, or does this open up the race for other Republican contenders? Any prospective Democrats?

Pignanelli: With Matheson out of contention, Utahns can expect a dozen Republicans making a strong sniff at the race. But most of them will soon realize that Mayor Love has constructed first-class operation with the state's leading campaign experts. Veterans Dave Hansen and Kitty Dunn are the best in the business and excel in intraparty fights. The important question is what percentage of an overwhelming majority Love captures in the convention. Many politicos are suggesting that popular Democrat Sen. Luz Robles shift from the Second to the Fourth District in her Congressional bid, thereby offering a serious challenge to Love.

Webb: Love’s nomination is by no means assured, even though no big names have jumped in immediately. (Businessman Robert Fuehr has been running for some time.) National and local GOP bosses would love to clear the decks for Love. She is fresh, smart and would make history as the first black Republican woman in Congress. But she has a number of Republican detractors who view her as a lightweight without sufficient discipline or substance. She could easily get a fight from a more right-wing candidate. She must walk a fine line, keeping state delegates and the conservative GOP base happy, while not drifting so far right that she jeopardizes the general election. I expect the GOP nomination fight will get messy before it's over.

The only Democrat with a chance to win is Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams. He could quickly emerge as a Matheson-like force, but then he would face the same tough conditions every two years as Matheson did.

What is the impact on the Utah Democratic Party and Utah politics in general?

Pignanelli: Clueless left-wingers (the Democrat equivalent of tea party extremists) are happy to see Matheson leave. They do not care about losing the advantage an incumbent Democrat brings to the entire ticket. They demand fealty to their ideals, regardless of consequences.

Matheson is well respected by his colleagues and most Utahns regardless of political persuasion. His excellent constituent services, a serious focus on budget discipline, a depth of understanding of Utah's energy issues and a pragmatic approach to health care reform will soon be gone. He will be pressured to run for statewide office in 2016 and beyond. His always practical view of the political environment at that time will determine his decision.

Webb: Matheson was the star of the Democratic Party, and it’s now possible the Democrats will go for years without holding any positions beyond local governments.

I can’t help but believe that congressional gridlock, dysfunction and an overall toxic environment contributed to Matheson’s decision. Great leadership is crucial to the success of our country. But, unfortunately, the very best, most capable leaders don’t often run for office. Instead of statesmen, we sometimes get ideologues or the politically ambitious.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Previously he was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and Deseret News managing editor. Email: lwebb@exoro.com. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Pignanelli served 10 years in the Utah House of Representatives, six years as minority leader. His spouse, D'Arcy Dixon Pignanelli, is a state tax commissioner. Email: frankp@xmission.com.

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