Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Congressman Jim Matheson at a meeting in Utah's Capitol in February. Some Democratic leaders think Matheson can win Sen. Orrin Hatch's seat in 2012.

WASHINGTON — Democratic officials sense a rare opportunity to win a U.S. Senate race in Utah and are laying the groundwork to help if Rep. Jim Matheson decides to run for the seat now held by Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch.

The committee that oversees the Democrats' campaign efforts nationally generally doesn't pay much attention to Utah elections. It makes little sense to devote time and money to a state where the GOP candidate for Senate typically wins in a landslide.

But the committee's interest in the state has clearly picked up in recent weeks, exemplified by a series of press releases critical of Hatch and the purchase of online ads. It's a small investment that nevertheless signals a shift in thinking.

The new emphasis on Utah comes as two polls show Matheson running virtually even with Hatch in a hypothetical matchup; one of those was a Dan Jones and Associates poll for the Deseret News showing Hatch and Matheson tied at 47 percent each. Also, Hatch faces a potentially divisive primary that could prompt some voters to consider an alternative to a GOP nominee.

Matthew Burbank, an associate professor at the University of Utah, said the Democrats' chances probably would improve if Hatch were to be defeated during the state Republican convention or in a primary election. Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz is considering getting into the race and such a contest could get mean-spirited in a hurry.

"Matheson would then be in a position to pick up some of the people disgruntled from the Republican primary. You need something like that for a Democrat to win statewide in Utah," Burbank said.

Matt Canter, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said Hatch faces a tough re-election fight in the primary. The six-term senator, 77, has come under attack from conservative advocacy groups such as the Club for Growth.

"It appears like Utah voters are going to be looking for an alternative, someone who is really putting Utah first and someone who fits the state," Canter said in explaining the committee's newfound interest in Utah.

Matheson, 51, is the lone Democrat in the state's congressional delegation and the son of former Gov. Scott Matheson, who served from 1977 to 1985. He won't make a decision about whether to enter the race until later this year. The Utah Legislature is redrawing House districts, which could place Matheson in an even more difficult district for a Democrat to win.

Republican officials say they aren't worried.

"We have every confidence that Sen. Hatch will be re-elected," said Brian Walsh, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. "Utah is a red state, and I think there's a reason no Democrat has yet to step forward. They recognize that, particularly in a presidential year, it's a very difficult state to win."

In early July, Democratic campaign officials criticized Hatch for comments he made on the Senate floor about the poor needing to share some of the responsibility for dealing with the budget deficit.

Matheson said he wasn't aware of the committee's efforts.

Matheson said he believes the Senate race is winnable for one Democratic candidate, and he thinks that's him. But that doesn't mean he's getting into the race.

"There are different options on the table for me right now: Congress, senator, governor, in no particular order," Matheson said. "I'm just looking for the best opportunity to serve my constituents."

Contributing: Josh Loftin