Jim Matheson

The race in Utah's 2nd Congressional District is apparently officially under way with the first media ad now running.

The radio ad is paid for by a national conservative group targeting Rep. Jim Matheson's votes on Bush administration's wireless surveillance program — which has still failed to pass Congress.

A form of the ad paid for by the Defense of Democracies Action Fund has been running as a TV spot in other states, targeting several freshman Democratic U.S. House members. The ad against Matheson, D-Utah, is a radio spot running on local stations.

Oddly enough, says Matheson spokeswoman Alyson Heyrend, Matheson and his fellow Blue Dog Democrats want House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to schedule a vote on the Senate version of the warrantless wireless spying bill. And the ad asks listeners to call Matheson and tell him to pressure Pelosi to schedule such a vote.

Matheson "is already on record as favoring" a vote on the Senate bill, Heyrend said.

The 60-second spot reviews a history of the warrantless surveillance program. It says that "21 House Democrats" signed a letter supporting the Senate plan. But over a month later, House Democrats have refused to vote on the Senate bill and instead passed "a sham bill" that "fails to restore the capabilities our government agencies need. It is time Jim Matheson and the House did its job." The ad ends by giving a long-distance number and asking Utahns to call that number and complain about Matheson.

The 21 House Democrats are the Blue Dog coalition, of which Matheson is co-chairman, a group of moderate-to-conservative Democrats who often butt heads with House Democratic leaders. Heyrend says Matheson is doing exactly what the ad asks — trying to get a vote on the Senate bill. So it is odd that it is running here, she said.

The fund is a new offshoot, formed just in February, from a bipartisan group called Defense of Democracies. The nonprofit Defense of Democracies is a 501(c)(3) group, and as such it can't participate in partisan politics. But the Defense of Democracies Action Fund is a 501(c)(4) group and can run partisan ads, reports the public interest group www.publiceye.org To read more about the Defense of Democracies Action Fund you can go to that Web site.

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, is a controversial measure, with Bush promising a veto of the House version unless it gives American telephone companies, who need to cooperate with the federal government under the act, immunity for any wireless spying previously conducted. The Senate version of the FISA reauthorization bill has that retroactive feature, but the House version does not.

In any case, Matheson wants a vote on the Senate bill at the very least, Heyrend said.

Matheson's 2nd District is one of the largest geographic districts in the nation — taking in the eastern side of Salt Lake County, a small northeast part of Utah County, and counties to the east, southeast and southwest. Except in Matheson's races, the district normally votes Republican. And because of that, Matheson has often been targeted by the National Republican Party and any number of conservative groups for defeat.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars have in his other re-elections been spent against him by outside groups. But after an impressive re-election victory in 2004, much of that money didn't come in in 2006 and Matheson coasted to a 59-37 percent victory that year over former GOP state Rep. LaVar Christensen.

In fact, Matheson was so confident of victory in 2006 that after Election Day he still had $315,000 in his campaign account, giving a nice financial cushion going into his 2008 re-election cycle.

National pundits who each election list the U.S. House seats that could be lost by the incumbent, in 2006 did not list Matheson's 2nd Congressional District as vulnerable for the first time in years. And early on in that campaign, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — who actually opposed Matheson in 2000 and ran ads against him — ran TV ads in favor of him two years ago.

Heyrend said this is the first ad naming Matheson, either for or against him, in this election season.

E-mail: bbjr@desnews.com