(KCPW News) Democratic Representative Jim Matheson has won seven consecutive congressional elections in Utah, and while incumbents typically fare well in the U.S. House of Representatives, Matheson’s success in a deeply Republican state is notable. For over a decade, Democrats have counted on Matheson as a dependable foothold in one of the reddest states in the country, while Republicans always kept his district in mind—be it the 2nd or 4th District —when trying to pick off vulnerable Democrats.
Matheson maintains that a politically unfavorable situation had little to do with his decision to retire. As an incumbent, he probably had a better chance than most Democrats in the 4th District. Leah Murray, associate professor of political science at Weber State, says historical trends overwhelmingly favor congressional incumbents in general.
“What we know about incumbency advantage in congressional elections is something to the tune of 98% re-election rates,” Murray says. “Pretty much everybody who wants to run for re-election gets to go back into office.
“When you take out the incumbent, it’s a whole new ballgame.”
So Matheson would be justified in believing he had a good chance in 2014. But without an incumbent running, do the Democrats stand a chance?
“It is not a seat I think they can get without incumbency advantage,” Murray says. “And I hate to say that because you never know really what’s going to happen. But I look at that district and how it’s drawn, and that’s not a Democratic district. So a Democrat who hasn’t delivered some goods is probably going to have a hard time winning.”
Utah Democrats, however, disagree with that assessment. Matt Lyon, the Executive Director of the Utah Democratic Party, says the demographics of Utah’s 4th District should make it a competitive race.
“We view it as a really competitive seat. It’s about a third Democratic, a third Republican, and a third independent,” says Lyon. “So we think with the right candidate that we can certainly take it.
“We know that Jim Matheson and (Salt Lake County Mayor) Ben McAdams clearly did really well in the district in 2012, and we think we can hold it in 2014 as well,” Lyon says.
In addition, Lyon says he’s already had four potential candidates approach him about running in Matheson’s place. He wouldn’t name names, but Lyon says those four candidates would bring impressive resumes to the table.
“We’ve had four (interested persons) who are of high-caliber who are names that news media and the public would recognize,” he says. “Some of them are former candidates, some of them are currently elected, some of them are leaders in the business and the non-profit communities.”
But it remains to be seen if any Democrat could stand a chance against Republican Mia Love. Matheson narrowly defeated Love in 2012, but in the process, Love has become a highly recognizable figure in conservative politics. She was a featured speaker at the 2012 Republican National Convention, and has already raised hundreds of thousands of dollars.
But with Matheson out, there’s a possibility that more Republican candidates will step up to the plate. In fact, Murray believes a Republican has a better chance of beating Mia Love than a Democrat does.
“Mia Love doesn’t have to worry so much about fundraising yet. She’s got to get through the delegate gauntlet of the Republican caucuses. And that’s a different game,” Murray says. “That’s not a, ‘Do I have a million dollars in the bank that I can spend?’ That’s a, ‘Have I met 3,500 people or the 4th of the 3,500 people that choose my district’s nominee, and do they want me?’”
Despite their recent political quarrels, Love was complimentary of Matheson in the wake of his retirement.
In a statement, Love said Matheson “served our state with passion and has been a dedicated public servant during his tenure in Congress.”
Love went on to say that Matheson’s decision would not affect her campaign.
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