Jim Matheson

Just a little over a year until Election Day 2008 and no Republican has stepped forward to challenge Democratic Congressman Jim Matheson.

Two legitimate GOP challengers have already announced campaigns against 3rd District Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah. But only silence on the GOP front in the 2nd District.

Republicans used to line up to challenge Matheson, who was first elected in 2000.

One year he had 12 GOP challengers — many of whom had announced the summer before the next year's election, or right about this time in the election cycle.

But with his largest win ever in 2006 — 59 percent to 37 percent over former state GOP Rep. LaVar Christensen — and with Matheson now having by far his largest campaign war chest, nearly $600,000, Republicans are clearly wary of the four-term incumbent.

"We were just talking about this today at party headquarters," Utah GOP vice chairman Todd Weiler said. "There is no one out there right now" on the Republican side.

Salt Lake County GOP chairman James Evans said he also hadn't heard of anyone thinking about running against Matheson.

Weiler said he would like to see Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff or KSL radio talk-show host Doug Wright take on Matheson. But Weiler believes Shurtleff, who just suffered a broken leg that will lay him up for some time, will seek re-election next year — holding out for a governor's race in 2012. And Wright turned down the race in 2006.

Christensen, a millionaire attorney and developer, spent nearly $550,000 of his own money to challenge Matheson last year — only to be rejected by voters.

Matheson has raised about $200,000 more by mid-July this year than he has had by the summer of his other off-election years. A moderate-to-conservative Democrat — he co-chairs the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition of House Democrats — this will be Matheson's first election in the House majority.

That may have helped him in fund raising, Matheson said. But the real reason he's ahead in fund raising this cycle "is because for once (in 2006), I ended a race with a little bit more money in the bank. And, as always, I've been working real hard at raising money."

A son of the late Democratic Gov. Scott M. Matheson, he says he will enter the 2008 race next summer with more money than ever before.

"I wouldn't say that (Utah Republicans) are afraid of me," he added. His district is still more Republican than Democrat in voting for major offices. But Utahns in the large, sprawling 2nd Congressional District — which stretches from eastern Salt Lake County to the Uinta Basin and then wraps south and west to Washington and Iron counties — have gotten to know him better, Matheson said.

"I'm proud of what I've done as a congressman. I've worked very hard, both as a candidate and as a congressman, and I think people see that," he said.

Matheson spent $1.64 million in his 2006 re-election, outspending Christensen nearly 2-to-1.

"I always assume that my next race will cost at least as much as my last one," Matheson said. "And I'm on track to raise the most ever."

In 2002 and 2004, national GOP groups pumped millions of dollars into 2nd District advertising trying to defeat Matheson, who was then one of the few Democratic congressmen in the Mountain West. Those groups didn't come into the 2006 race, and Matheson hopes they won't be here next year.

Success may breed wariness by his political opponents, but Matheson says it won't breed overconfidence by him.

"I see no indication now that they (traditional Republican groups) won't be coming after me" in 2008, Matheson said.

In fact, in January of this year President Bush's former political guru, Karl Rove, gave a power-point presentation to Washington, D.C., GOP insiders, highlighting possible Republican victories in 2008.

"And my name was first on Rove's list, the Washington Post reported," said Matheson.

Weiler said Utah GOP leaders "aren't near the panic point yet" in finding someone to challenge Matheson, although the longer the ultimate Republican challenger(s) wait, the harder it will be for them to catch up in fund raising.

"We'll put our heads together and find a good candidate," Weiler said.

Matheson vowed to be aggressive, both in raising money and running his campaign. "It will be a tough race for me. That's how it always is."

E-mail: bbjr@desnews.com