By KATE NOCERA
It’s something of a miracle Rep. Jim Matheson has been in Washington as long as he has.
He’s a Democrat from Utah in a district that has a 13-point Republican edge in voter registrations. He eked out a 1,600-vote victory in 2002. He survived the George W. Bush victory of 2004 and won again during the Republican wave of 2010, beating his opponent by 5 points.
“That was a good year,” he said laughing.
In an era in which moderates have been declared all but extinct, Matheson says he’s not only surviving but thriving in the political center. He’s one of a handful of Blue Dog Democrats left in a deeply divided and partisan Congress and regularly votes against his party’s agenda. He’s at the top of the GOP list again this year as a Democrat to beat and represents one of the most Republican districts currently occupied by a Democrat.
“People are looking for common-sense folks to be in office; there are too many folks who have had a career in Congress on both the left and the right that are too ideologically extreme and that’s not where most of America is,” he said.
Matheson’s voting record makes it hard to pin him down. He voted against Barack Obama’s health care law but also voted against repealing it. He voted with Republicans on the Cut, Cap and Balance bill pushed by the tea party to balance the budget but against Rep. Paul Ryan’s controversial budget plan that included a Medicare overhaul. He voted against defunding Planned Parenthood but supported a bill to prohibit taxpayer funding for abortions.
So far, Matheson’s approach has worked to keep him in office, but this may be the toughest election cycle yet, as the stars are aligning against him.
Mitt Romney is on the top of the GOP ticket and is wildly popular in Utah. Matheson is running in a new district. And then there’s his opponent: Republican Mia Love, an African-American, Mormon mayor of a growing city in the district. She’s a compelling candidate to say the least, and the National Republican Congressional Committee has tapped her as one of its elite Young Guns.
“They always target me because they are data driven. They look at a map and see here’s a district that should be Republican and it’s represented by someone of another party, so that just puts you on the list,” Matheson said. “But I win anyway. In Utah, people aren’t just driven by party label; if they were, I wouldn’t be elected.”
After his current district was split up during the redistricting process, Matheson opted to run in the newly created 4th District because it is where he “had represented the most people” he said.
Matheson currently represents about a third of the new district. It is slightly more Democratic than the current 2nd District but still leans heavily Republican.
Besides being almost militantly moderate, Matheson has had success in getting Republican constituents who are used to voting for conservatives like Sens. Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee to vote for him.
“Historically, we have supported Congressman Matheson because he’s very accessible,” said Dewey Reagan, a Matheson contributor and Republican who has also donated to Hatch and Lee. Reagan said he has not had enough time to look at both candidates this year but does not rule out voting for Matheson again. “When constituents and my family have had issues, he’s always been accessible and he’s been willing to help. That’s why he has broad appeal and that’s why he’s been successful in the state.”
Though currently on crutches because of an ankle injury, Matheson said he’s picked up his efforts to meet the people who’ve never voted for him, though he’s confident most people know who he is and what he’s all about — which is to say not a strict follower of Democratic leadership.
“People always try to do that guilt by association,” he said of Republican attempts to link him to Obama. “I don’t take anything for granted, but I do have a real confidence that people know me. I don’t just say I’ll do what’s best for Utah, I actually do it.”
It was never going to be an easy run to victory for the incumbent but suddenly the political world became very focused on Utah’s 4th District. Enter: Mia Love.
Love’s surprising victory at the Utah state GOP convention — she got 70 percent of the vote — made national headlines. She’s the Brooklyn-born daughter of Haitian immigrants and the mayor of Saratoga Springs, Utah, a town of about 18,000. If elected, Love would be the first black female Republican to serve in the House of Representatives.
But Love says she doesn’t care about any “first” other than being the first Republican to beat Matheson in 12 years.
“I don’t think he’s had a formidable opponent before,” Love said in an interview. “He certainly hasn’t had an opponent that’s worked to build coalitions and has worked with people on all ends of the political spectrum. He’s trying to paint me in the same light he’s painted all his other opponents, as extremists, and it’s just not going to stick because people know me here."
Love said Matheson is “woefully out of touch” with the people of the 4th District, pointing to key votes — like a vote against the repeal of the health care law — and Matheson’s plan to vote for Obama in a state where the vast majority of voters support Romney.
“I think he may reflect on his decision to run in this new district and go ‘whoops.’ Big whoops,” said Rep. Jason Chaffetz, who represents part of the new district Matheson and Love will run in.
“She’s breaking through some glass ceilings, and she has the ability to raise money, big money,” Chaffetz added. “He skirts by the hair of his chinny chin chin every year. He’s gonna get a closer shave than he’s ever had before.”
But the game-changing circumstances of the race haven’t caused Matheson to change his bipartisan tune and he plans to approach the race the same way he always has. Matheson believes his blue doggedness is key to getting reelected. While he says he’ll vote for President Obama, Matheson says his all-over-the-place voting record proves his ability to “vote for Utah, not with any party.”
“My opponent is someone who is just going to walk the party line, and that’s going to be the same as every election I’ve run [in],” he said. “In the 2012 election cycle where Congress is viewed very unfavorably, it’s because people don’t like all the bickering and polarization. They don’t like the partisanship, and people across the country want an institution where men and women come together and try to work to make progress. I think I’m actually as well or in better position to run for Congress than in any other year I’ve run because people in Utah know that’s who I am.”