SALT LAKE CITY — When polling places closed across Utah at 8 p.m. on Election Day last year, one race in particular was too close to call. The battle for Utah's 2nd Congressional District was going down to the wire.
For much of the day exit polling had Democratic incumbent Rep. Jim Matheson trailing Republican challenger Morgan Philpot. By midnight, reporting precincts showed the two men deadlocked.
Matheson eventually pulled ahead to notch a narrow victory. Having survived that close call, Matheson now poses a very serious triple threat to Utah Republicans: the six-term Congressman is openly flirting with the possibilities of running for governor, the U.S. Senate or re-election in 2012.
"I don't think that the activists in the Republican Party reflect the opinion of the average Utah Republicans," Matheson told the Deseret News. "So I think that there is an opportunity for voices of reason to succeed in Utah regardless of party label. … In this world of a more and more polarized debate, most people want elected officials to be constructive and pragmatic and try to solve problems and make progress."
Matheson represents what is becoming an increasing rare breed in national politics: a moderate who is able to reach across party lines and get things done. For Matheson, his "yes" vote to raise the debt ceiling on Aug. 1 is a prime example of the problem-solving pragmatism he believes most voters crave. Unlike Utah's four Republicans in Congress, Matheson decided as a matter of principle that a flawed bill to increase the debt limit was immensely better than the alternative — a government default.
"The moderates in both the Republican and Democratic Parties are going to be the ones who rally around a bipartisan compromise agreement that moves legislation forward, and that's exactly what happened with the (debt ceiling) proposal," Matheson said. "I think it was more than just kicking the can down the road; I think it was a legitimate step. It does not solve the problem, though — there are many difficult decisions that continue to lie ahead. But, it prevented this country from defaulting on its obligations, because America just doesn't default. America stands by its obligations — that's what America does."
If the possibility of Matheson competing with the likes of Hatch or Chaffetz for a Senate seat in Republican-dominated Utah seems far-fetched, think again: a recent Deseret News/KSL-TV poll by Dan Jones & Associates showed a Matheson-Hatch matchup tied at 47 percent, and in another hypothetical Chaffetz barely led Matheson, 46 percent to 45 percent.
Those numbers reflect results that emerged earlier this year when BYU's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy asked Utah voters to rate political figures on a 1-to-100 favorability scale. Matheson scored 54.1 — ahead of every other Beehive State politician on the survey, including Chaffetz (52.1) and Hatch (48.2).
Matheson's appeal isn't limited to Democrats. Indeed, in his six Congressional races dating back to 2000, the Congressman's support among Republican voters has always topped 20 percent and even reached as high as 46.4 percent in the 2008 election.
"The magic for Matheson is his consistent ability to attract a substantial proportion of Republican votes," said Quin Monson, associate director of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy.
The notion of Matheson running for Senate is gaining traction and even attracting national attention. Although the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee isn't yet mentioning Matheson by name, in July the group that so rarely injects itself into matters of Utah politics started targeting Hatch in a steady stream of emails to Utah media outlets. And to anyone within earshot, the DSCC is now always at the ready to articulate its positions that Hatch and likely Senate candidate Rep. Jason Chaffetz are vulnerable in a statewide race. In short order, Democrats see a chance to make the impossible happen: They believe Utah could send a Democrat to the Senate in the 2012 election.
"Orrin Hatch and Jason Chaffetz have shown that they're only interested in doing what's best for their own careers and the special interests they represent in Washington," said Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee press secretary Shripal Shah. "Utah voters want an independent senator that puts Utah first and is willing to take on their own party — Democrat or Republican — to do what's right for Utah."
At the same time, a special-interest group with GOP ties is firing back with attack ads aimed at Matheson.
"An outside group that is the brainchild of former Bush adviser Karl Rove has landed in Utah — more than a year before the 2012 election," Utah Democratic Party chair Jim Dabakis said last week in a press release. "Crossroads GPS — a spinoff of Rove's American Crossroads group — is spending tens of thousands of dollars attacking Congressman Jim Matheson in television ads."
The prospect of Matheson vying for the Senate or running for governor may hold plenty of intrigue, but some political insiders think that he is simply floating out the possibility of a statewide candidacy in order to influence the once-a-decade Congressional redistricting currently under debate. Controlled by the Republican-majority Utah Legislature, redistricting will draw new boundaries and create a fourth Congressional district for Utah. Whether Matheson's Democratic base remains intact or gets split into several different districts remains to be seen. That process will finish later this year, and Matheson has until March to file his election forms.
"Matheson definitely has enough juice to be a player against Hatch or the governor," said Frank Pignanelli, a Democrat and former state legislator who supports Matheson. "But I would hope that he's treated fairly in the (redistricting) and that he runs again for the House. And I think he's sending a signal: 'If I'm going to have to go deal with a new district, then I might as well go and run statewide.' "
While Matheson acknowledges his wife, Amy, will provide input into his decision regarding the 2012 election, he also frankly concedes that in political matters no one's opinion matters more to him than his mother's. Indeed, Norma Matheson knows a thing or two about politics in Utah from the two terms her late husband, Scott Matheson Sr., served as the Beehive State's 12th governor from 1977-85.
"My closest adviser on most issues is my mom — always has been," Matheson said. "Back when my dad was governor he always said she had the best political judgment in our family, so she's been an adviser for me all along. I think she's got a pretty good head on her shoulders, and she's a very valuable contributor to me when I try to make decisions about any political issue."
EMAIL: firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: askargo