SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's lone Democratic member of Congress, Rep. Jim Matheson, managed to hold back the GOP tidal wave that swept Democrats out of office around the country on Election Day.
Yet another star of the state's minority party, Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon, failed spectacularly in his bid for governor, losing 28 of 29 counties, including Salt Lake.
"In a tough election cycle, if the voters know you and trust you, then you survive," state Democratic Party Chairman Wayne Holland said, particularly in the state's largely conservative rural areas.
Unlike Matheson, who has spent the past decade connecting with constituents throughout his far-flung district, Holland said many voters outside the Wasatch Front never really got to know Corroon.
A whirlwind bus tour through the state in the final days of his campaign to unseat GOP Gov. Gary Herbert showed him just how much more time he should have been spending with voters.
"What it made me realize at the end is we needed to meet with people to convince them of our policies and convince them to vote for us," Corroon said.
Western voters look for authenticity when sizing up candidates, said Jill Hanauer, president of Project New West, a research firm in Denver that caters to Democratic clients.
Candidates "have to be able to speak their language and really understand their priorities and values," Hanauer said, not just show up in a pair of new cowboy boots. "You can tell if it's real or not."
But Corroon said that too often, he had to choose between campaigning and fundraising. His campaign spent more than $2 million, much of it on television commercials produced by out-of-state consultants that were intended to introduce him to Utah voters.
Those commercials have been widely condemned for their negativity and criticized for not showing voters the quiet, steady fiscal conservative who may have spelled trouble for Herbert.
"What Peter Corroon needed to do more of is define himself, like Jim Matheson. We all have an image of Jim Matheson as this independent maverick," said Frank Pignanelli, a former Democratic lawmaker now a lobbyist and a political columnist for the Deseret News.
Pignanelli said Matheson should be the role model for Democrats, even though he faced his first-ever primary challenge earlier this year from a progressive candidate backed by the far left of the party.
"It's stupid and it's dangerous," Pignanelli said of such inter-party squabbling. "Jim Matheson has the formula of how a Democrat can win. … We need to sit at his feet and learn how to accomplish this."
Matheson was careful not to criticize Corroon's campaign and noted that Democrats also lost six seats in the Utah Legislature. "The wave is real," he said.
Matheson said he avoided losing to GOP challenger Morgan Philpot because he's built a strong relationship with his constituents.
"There's some people who bought into the 'Matheson equals Pelosi' signs, obviously," Matheson said. "But a majority of voters didn't, because they said, 'That's not who he is.' "
Matheson's father, the late Gov. Scott Matheson, re-elected in 1980, is the last Democrat to win a governor's race in Utah. But the congressman said voters in GOP-dominated Utah don't automatically reject Democratic candidates.
"As much as Utah is seen as a red state, Utahns don't like to be, in my opinion, categorized," he said. "They like to judge the person. And obviously, if they didn't, I wouldn't be in office based on the partisan demographics in my district," one of the most Republican in the country.
Philpot, who did not concede the race until midday Wednesday, said money may also have made a difference. Unlike other GOP congressional candidates nationwide, he received little help from the national party.
"There was a point in time when the negative attacks started that we didn't have the money to rebut them," he said. "We were operating on $250,000 versus $1.7 million — and a name that's well known in Utah. Given that, we did fantastic."
Even though the 2nd District encompasses much of the state, Philpot said a Democrat didn't have a chance to win the governor's race.
"The state is just not going to elect a Democrat right now," he said. "And probably not in the near future."
2nd Congressional District
Jim Matheson (D) 116,404, 50.7 percent
Morgan Philpot (R) 105,514, 45.9 percent
855 of 855 precincts reporting
Gary Herbert (R) 381,244, 64.2 percent
Peter Corroon (D) 188,832, 31.8 percent
2,147 of 2,148 precincts reporting
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