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Rep. Jim Matheson

The 4th Congressional District race between Democratic Congressman Jim Matheson and Republican Mia Love is Utah's most interesting political contest this year. It will attract national attention.

What's all the fuss about?

Pignanelli: "It's not the size of the dog in the fight, it's the size of the fight in the dog." — Mark Twain. The enthusiasm for this contest will increase exponentially. It is impossible not be impressed with Mayor Love. She is an articulate, charismatic conservative with a compelling personal biography. At the convention, she defied expectations of a primary and shut down two sturdy opponents. Her campaign will receive tremendous support from many right-wing and Republican PACs interested in the realistic possibility of the first African-American Republican female in Congress.

Matheson is consistently ranked as Utah's most popular elected official. In addition to formidable campaign and fundraising skills, Matheson's accomplishments in behalf of the state could fill a 60-minute infomercial. The 12-year veteran garners attention from outside the state as a leading member of the Blue Dog Democrat Congressional Caucus — who enjoys the support of high-profile business groups including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The only kind of race Matheson knows is a tough one ... and he is ready.

Love is now receiving all kinds of "love" from local and national tea party organizations. Initially a strength, this will be a real vulnerability for Love as these entities are despised by rational Utahns. Matheson could have used a sledgehammer against other tea party opponents (aka males), but must deftly employ a scalpel when dissecting Mayor Love on this issue.

Webb: Some national pundits make lists of the most exciting House races to watch, and this contest is quickly going to jump to the top. It has multiple fascinating story lines: A possible first female black Republican House member in the nation's history (who hails from Mormon country and is attractive and feisty to boot); the possibility of a Republican seat pickup when control of the House could hang in the balance; the possible defeat of another Blue Dog Democrat (an endangered species); and the best opportunity in 10 years for the GOP to knock off Jim Matheson.

National leadership of both parties is intensely interested. Big money will flow into Utah, both into the Love and Matheson campaigns, and likely independent expenditures from out-of-state groups.

What impact will Mitt Romney have on this race?

Webb: Matheson has always been able to get moderate Republicans to cross over and vote for him. But Romney will bring out a lot more Republicans to vote, and probably boost the partisan intensity as Utahns become dismayed at Democratic attacks in what will be a very nasty presidential contest. That's all bad news for Matheson.

Pignanelli: The belief that Romney's coattails will carry every Republican on the ballot — other than Salt Lake candidates — has morphed into local gospel. Some politicos are suggesting that moderate Republicans and independents, who usually support Matheson, will vote for Love in deference to Romney — and for reasons unique to the 4th District race. The theory is some LDS voters desire a joint Romney and Love victory to demonstrate that bigotry is a by-gone relic in Utah and among Mormons.

Could this be the year when Matheson goes down?

Pignanelli: Despite her talents and momentum, we are hearing the Love campaign is currently suffering from disorganization. This situation will be corrected soon by national GOP operatives. Conversely, the Matheson machine is well oiled and prepared for battle. Also, others are expecting Matheson will unwittingly give Love an additional advantage through his errors and stumbles. They will be waiting a long time — Matheson has never made a serious error in his career. Only the foolhardy will dismiss Matheson's excellent chances for re-election.

Webb: On paper, Mia Love should defeat Matheson rather handily. All she has to do is corral Republican and Republican-leaning votes. She's not right-wing, so she should appeal to moderates and independents. So Matheson faces his toughest challenge ever, although early polls may show him ahead based on name familiarity.

Matheson has his strengths. Independents and moderate Republicans have voted for him for many years. He's a hard worker, will have plenty of money and will run an excellent campaign with a strong grassroots organization.

30 comments on this story

Love is an exciting candidate, but she's young and inexperienced. She's never done anything at this level. Her campaign will badly need adult supervision, someone with lots of solid Utah experience. She will get help from the national party and its political consultants — which could backfire. The national hotshot consultants usually want to instantly go negative. But a scorched-earth campaign, especially mounted by outside groups, won't work against Matheson. He is too well-liked and well-known in Utah to be vulnerable to nasty campaigning. People believe he's a good guy. Certainly, Matheson can be criticized on a variety of fronts. But a fine line exists that shouldn't be crossed, and the national hired guns usually don't get the nuances. It's going to take a smart, well-run campaign to beat Matheson.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Previously he was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and Deseret News managing editor. Email: lwebb@exoro.com. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Pignanelli served 10 years in the Utah House of Representatives, six years as minority leader. His spouse, D'Arcy Dixon Pignanelli, is a state tax commissioner. Email: frankp@xmission.com.