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Matheson Brand Trumped Top of the Ticket in Utah

How the popular Blue Dog Democrat won a tight race against a GOP rising star

Kim Raff/The Salt Lake Tribune/Associated Press
By casting himself as an independent thinker, Matheson, a Blue Dog Democrat, was able to overcome a challenge from Love, a rising GOP star, despite running for re-election in both a state and a district that heavily favored Republicans.

Those close to Utah Rep. Jim Matheson describe him as data-driven and deeply involved in his own campaign strategy, so the Blue Dog Democrat knew exactly the herculean task he faced in 2012.

One of the most vulnerable incumbents in the country, Matheson called his challenge the “perfect storm.” Seventy-five percent of his redrawn and heavily Republican district was new to him, Mitt Romney was at the top of the GOP ticket in the heavily Mormon state, Republicans nominated an energetic and potentially historic candidate in Mia Love and more than $2.2 million was spent against him on the airwaves by outside groups.

Yet, he still won.

“Those were the four corners of the playing field that created by far the most powerful opposition I’ve faced,” Matheson said in an interview. “It gives me confidence that I succeeded in this environment. I don’t think the moon and the stars will line up against me ever again like they did this time.”

The story of how he did it doesn’t vary much from any of his campaigns in the past, Matheson and his consultants said in interviews this week. A member of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition, Matheson has kept a small and consistent team over the years, using Democratic strategists Karl Struble for media and Jim Crounse for direct mail. He added John Anzalone this cycle after his former pollster retired.

Matheson’s district has always tilted toward Republicans, so finding voters willing to split their ticket was nothing new. However, the sheer number of ticket-splitters — Romney won 73 percent statewide and is believed to have gotten close to that in the 4th District — is nothing short of remarkable.

“I don’t think we did anything uniquely different from my other races,” Matheson said. “We had an aggressive ground game, which I always try to do. We stayed disciplined to talk about the issues that created the biggest difference. I also think just the general approach of who I am.”

There is an unmistakable Matheson brand in Utah that has solidified during many years of his family’s public service. Matheson’s late father, Scott Matheson, was elected in 1976 to his first of two terms as governor, and Grover Cleveland appointed his great-great-grandmother as a postmistress, Matheson said.

“He started out the race with 60 percent favorable ratings and ended the race with 60 percent favorable ratings,” Anzalone said. “I’ve just never seen numbers like this. Given the self-ID for Republicans in this district, his popularity rating is really unbelievable. It just defies party politics — he’s just kind of a son of Utah.”

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