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Tom Smart, Deseret News
Rep. Jim Matheson, surrounded by friends and family, talks to the crowd as Democrats gather for election night results at the Marriott Hotel Tuesday in Salt Lake City.

SALT LAKE CITY — The 2nd District congressional race between incumbent Democrat Jim Matheson and Republican challenger Morgan Philpot narrowed to a dead heat around midnight Tuesday before the incumbent pulled out a narrow victory, grabbing 51 percent of the vote.

Matheson said nationwide, the 2010 campaign was dominated nationwide by a wave of support by tea party activists and voters who were anti-incumbent. His campaign took on a tough environment but prevailed through the hard work of volunteers.

Matheson said his victory indicates that Utahns know him well.

"I'm an independent voice. I put Utah's agenda above politics and party," Matheson said.

Veteran pollster Dan Jones, who predicted Matheson winning by a 3 percent to 5 percent margin, said a Democratic victory in the 2nd District was a remarkable achievement, considering Republican Gov. Gary Herbert and Senator-elect Mike Lee each won by more than 60 percent.

"Mr. Philpot made a real run the last two weeks of the campaign, especially the last week," Jones said. The Republicans were energized and got the people out."

Matheson said the outcome was gratifying, particularly when the boundaries of his district were drawn "in a very partisan way," intended to boot him out of office.

Philpot, who did not concede defeat after unofficial results showed him with 49 percent of the vote, said he was going to stay up and watch the results. "I don't think I'll be able to sleep that much tonight," he said shortly before midnight before final results were tallied. "Who in the world is trying to call this race now? Look at those numbers."

In recent weeks, public opinion polls suggested Matheson's support among likely voters had slipped, but Jones said in mid-October that Philpot would be hard-pressed to overcome the 26-point difference in the poll results.

But in the most recent Deseret News-KSL-TV poll, Philpot had pulled within 12 points of Matheson, Utah's only Democratic member of Congress.

The race took a negative turn in the final weeks of the campaign, with Matheson unveiling a television advertisement and a radio ad that said Philpot had missed hundreds of votes while serving in the Utah Legislature, left office mid-term and moved out of state but continued to use his state- employee benefits.

In an unusual twist, a private citizen spent more than $50,000 of her own money on radio and TV ads to support 39-year-old Philpot. Barbara Baker, a 79-year-old Utah private- school founder, appeared in the ads under the name Alice, warning that "our freedom is under attack once again." She went on to endorse Philpot.

Meanwhile, tea party activists and Philpot supporters attempted to link Matheson to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's policies and leadership tactics. Matheson, 50, has promoted himself as an independent Democrat who, as co-chairman of the Democratic Blue Dog Coalition, works for fiscal responsibility and accountability.

The Republican who's come closest to beating Matheson, John Swallow, said watching the returns come in Tuesday night was all too familiar.

"He ran a strong race at the end. Momentum was on his side," said Swallow, now with the Utah Attorney General's Office. "If he ends up losing, he probably just needed a few more days. That is hauntingly familiar."

Through redistricting that extended the 2nd District into southern Utah, Republicans have tried to pry the 2nd District out of Democratic hands. But Matheson had proved resilient, historically capturing about 30 percent of the GOP voters and about 60 percent of unaffiliated voters.

Quin Monson, associate director of BYU's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, said Matheson's steepest challenge is that he's a Democrat in one of the reddest states in the nation.

"He can never relax, because the context for him is so difficult. If there's a wave, it can swamp him," Monson said.

Matheson survived this election because of the strength he has built up with moderate Republicans. "Over the years, he hung on to enough of them to survive," Monson said.

But in this election cycle, Matheson, son of former Democratic Gov. Scott Matheson, also faced opposition from the more liberal wing of his own party when he didn't vote for President Barack Obama's health care overhaul. For the first time since he was elected in 2000, Jim Matheson didn't escape a primary and was challenged by retired educator Claudia Wright, whom he handily defeated.

On Monday, The Cook Political Report had pegged the outcome of the Matheson-Philpot race as "likely Democrat." Later in the day, the political website changed its analysis to "lean Democrat" advantage.

As it turned out, it was an accurate projection of the outcome.