Jim Matheson

U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson does have a "D" by his name in official listings.

But by national standards, Utah's 2nd Congressional District representative is not much of a Democrat.

Matheson even agrees with U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, much of the time. And Bishop is listed by various ranking organizations as one of the most conservative members of the U.S. House.

Bishop sent out a franked mailer in early August, telling his 1st Congressional District constituents some of the good, conservative things the GOP-controlled House has done this year.

At the request of the Deseret Morning News, Matheson's staff took the actions/votes that Bishop was most proud of, listed in his mailing, and compared Matheson's votes on those same measures.

Out of the 15 votes that Bishop bragged about to his constituents, Matheson voted with Bishop and the GOP majority 13 times.

The two issues on which Matheson voted opposite of Bishop were the GAS Act (HR3893) and the Refinery Permit Process Schedule Act (HR5254), said Alyson Heyrend, Matheson's spokeswoman.

Matheson voted against the GOP majority on those two bills, she said, because, despite Republicans' claims to the contrary, the bills would have placed the federal government more in control of the permitting and building of oil refineries, and Matheson is against that.

In a later interview with the Deseret Morning News' editorial board, Bishop said that while Matheson may vote with Republicans 50 percent of the time, "He's still a Democrat ... and wouldn't it be better to have someone (in the Utah) delegation who votes with the Republicans 90 percent of the time?"

The National Journal, in its yearly assessment of how representatives voted on a liberal/conservative range of topics, says that in 2005 Matheson was one of a handful of "centrists" — representatives who voted close to 50-50 on the "liberal" and "conservative" scale.

The newspaper, which reports on Congress, said Matheson voted 54.2 percent of the time as a "liberal" and 45.8 percent of the time as a "conservative."

Only 14 other members of the 435-member House voted closer to a 50-50 split. And only eight Democrats voted more conservatively than did Matheson, the journal said.

Since entering Congress in 2001, Matheson has voted about 50 percent of the time in step with GOP President Bush's positions on legislative issues, reviews by Congressional Quarterly have shown.

"I don't keep score" on whether votes are for or against Republicans or Democrats," said Matheson. "I try to take each issue and vote how to represent my constituents in Utah."

So what do more traditional Democrats think of Matheson?

"Of course I struggle with some of his votes, like the constitutional amendment on (same-sex) marriage," said state Rep. Jackie Biskupski, D-Salt Lake, one of two openly gay Utah legislators. "But Jim's district is very different from my (Central City) district. I disagree with some of my (legislative) Democrats, but that doesn't mean I want them out of office.

"I'm not giving up on Jim; I hope to get him to come around on some issues," she said.

"There is some tension" between Matheson and liberal elements of his Utah party, said state Sen. Scott McCoy, D-Salt Lake, the other openly gay legislator. "But I would certainly rather have Jim in Congress than someone like LaVar Christensen," Matheson's GOP opponent this year.

Matheson said he does hear from liberals about some of his votes that they don't like. But, then again, he hears from some conservative Republicans on votes they don't like, as well.

He is a Democrat, Matheson said, and he does vote along party lines when the House picks its leadership. So if Democrats win control of the House, Matheson will vote for a Democrat for speaker.

Otherwise, "I'm more convinced than ever that Utahns don't like the polarized partisanship of Washington." And straight party-line votes are not appreciated, one way or the other, Matheson said.

Matheson takes pride in belonging to a House group called the "Blue Dog Democrats," a fiscally conservative group of a dozen or two minority party members. Ironically, Bishop says that should Republicans lose control of the House this year, the Blue Dogs may fare worse under a Democratic majority, for the Blue Dogs didn't vote often with "the liberal wing" of the party.

Don't be confused. Matheson is clearly not as conservative as either Bishop or U.S. Rep. Chris Cannon, a Republican representing the 3rd Congressional District.

Compared to Matheson's 45.8 percent conservative voting record, the journal said, Bishop votes conservative 83.5 percent of the time and Cannon votes conservative 81.8 percent of the time — putting both of them in the top ranks of House conservatives.

Yet even though Utah is a very conservative state, Dan Jones & Associate polls conducted for the Morning News and KSL-TV show that Matheson, the Democrat, is more popular among his constituents than either Bishop or Cannon is with theirs.

A July survey shows that 75 percent of Matheson's constituents approve of the job he is doing. That's a very good rating. Only 50 percent of Cannon's constituents approve of his job performance; only 48 percent of Bishop's.

"Even if I could" explain Matheson's popularity in GOP-voting district, said Bishop, "I wouldn't" — no doubt not wanting to give Utah Democrats a political formula for Democratic election victories.

Hinting at those polls, Matheson said he believes most 2nd District residents "are pretty comfortable with me."

"I'm not looking at polls," says state Rep. Christensen, R-Draper, who is challenging Matheson this year. "I'm looking at principles."

Like the other Republicans who have run against Matheson and lost since 2000, Christensen believes that if he can get the Republicans in the 2nd District — who outnumber the Democrats — to come home, he can unseat the incumbent. Yet Matheson leads Christensen 64-23 percent in the July Jones poll.

Matheson "strategically" votes with Republicans "on random occasions" just to make it look like he's an acceptable, middle-of-the-road representative, says Christensen. But on many other occasions, when it really matters, Matheson votes with the national Democrats, Christensen charges.

"Like the deficit reduction vote — Jim voted with the Democrats to kill a $60 billion reduction to the federal deficit." Republicans won by just two votes, notes Christensen, with Matheson "on the wrong side."

"I'm providing principled leadership. I'm not interested in labels" marking Matheson as a moderate or centrist or, even as a conservative Democrat, Christensen said.

"In the end, voters will say who is principled, effective and who is a leader who can make a difference" in the Republican-controlled House, said Christensen. "I will consistently pursue one direction."

Just shouting "Republican" or "conservative" in a congressional race used to be a big draw in Utah. Less so these days.

National polls show that most Americans don't like Congress and are leaning toward turning the Republicans out of power this November.

To rally their base, Congressional Republicans have adopted their American Values Agenda, and held a number of so-called "moral" votes to point out the differences between the two parties on some core conservative issues.

But that's not getting at Matheson, either.

Matheson has voted with the Republicans on their "agenda" issues, including votes to protect "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, against Internet gambling and for a U.S. constitutional amendment to confine marriage to a man and a woman only.

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