Matheson is Confident; NRCC Vows to Make Up the Margin

Posted June 23, 2004 at 6:13pm

Republicans are sure this is the year they will topple Rep. Jim Matheson (D) in Utah’s conservative 2nd district.

After coming tantalizingly close last time — Matheson beat GOP nominee John Swallow by less than 1,900 votes in 2002 — Republicans are revved up about Swallow’s chances this year after his narrow victory in Tuesday’s primary.

“The district presents the GOP with one of the most likely pick-up seats in the nation,” Carl Forti, communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee, wrote in a memo about the primary results.

While the district is overwhelmingly Republican — President Bush carried it with 67 percent in 2000 — Matheson, son of the late Utah Gov. Scott Matheson (D), has managed to win it twice (though the district boundaries changed dramatically between the 2000 and 2002 contests).

But in this year’s rematch, Republicans insist Swallow is better positioned to win.

“He has better name ID, he has a more established fundraising and political base than he did last time and the party will be more united this time,” promised Bo Harmon, an NRCC spokesman.

Matheson, however, predicted that he would improve upon his 2002 showing.

This year’s GOP primary played out much like 2002’s. Venture capitalist Tim Bridgewater forced Swallow, a former state legislator, into a primary after neither one secured 60 percent of the delegates at the Republican state convention in May.

Bridgewater won more convention delegates both times only to lose in the primary.

Swallow won Tuesday 53-47 percent, almost identical to 2002, when he won 52-48 percent.

Both candidates shelled out significant amounts of cash in the primaries and both times the contest turned nasty and engendered hard feelings.

“He’s limping out of the primary here,” Greg Speed, a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman, said of Swallow. “Some top Republicans didn’t back him in the primary. He’s leaving the primary battered and bruised.”

“There are some wounds that are going to have to heal,” Alan Crooks, Bridgewater’s campaign manager, conceded Wednesday. “But I’d like to think that we can pull together and beat Matheson.”

Crooks said that on Tuesday night Bridgewater lent Swallow his “support” and encouraged his campaign staff and volunteers to turn their attention to helping Swallow beat Matheson in November.

“Republicans have a remarkable way of pulling together,” said Chris Bleak, executive director of the Utah Republican Party.

Harmon said that while the race is a rematch, a lot of factors are in place that should tilt things in Swallow’s favor this time.

The party is aware that it cannot splinter and “people are determined not to make that a factor” this year, Harmon said.

Furthermore, Bush, who ran so strong in the 2nd in 2000, tops the ticket followed by the party’s solid gubernatorial candidate Jon Huntsman Jr. and Sen. Bob Bennett (R), Harmon said.

In 2002, the House race was the top race on the 2nd district ballot. Republicans will try their best to tie Matheson to the Democratic standard-bearer in the presidential race, Sen. John Kerry (Mass.).

Finally, and perhaps most importantly for the Republicans, this year the race is on everyone’s radar screen.

“This race has been on our top challenger list since the day after Election Day last time,” Harmon said. “This time there is a more limited playing field and we can concentrate more on this race.”

But if Republicans are salivating at the possibility of picking up the seat, Democrats are determined to hold onto it.

Matheson is sitting on almost $1 million while Swallow had to spend $523,000 to win his primary.

As of the most recent Federal Election Commission reports, Swallow only had $220,000 in the bank.

Swallow should be able to replenish his war chest quickly as Republican organizations across the country, such as the deep-pocketed Club for Growth, which strongly backed him in the primary, are likely to infuse his campaign with cash.

Republicans like to point out that Matheson did not garner 50 percent of the vote last time but Democrats can cite a recent poll that shows Matheson is the most popular Congressman in Utah, besting his two GOP colleagues. According to the poll, Matheson even enjoys a 68 percent approval rating among Republicans.

“It’s going to be a tough race,” Crooks acknowledged, but one Republicans have been gearing up for.

“We’re going to be very aggressive,” Bleak said without detail. “I can’t give away the farm.”

Matheson knows Republicans will be gunning for him and he is not shying away from the fight. “I welcome this race,” he said.

Matheson is just as bullish, if not more so, about his chances than Republicans are about Swallow’s. “I think I will do better this year,” he said, pointing out that after redistricting he had to win over a host of new voters in 2002.

While all the statistics say the 2nd is one of the most Republican districts held by a Democrat in the country, Matheson says his success proves otherwise.

“Westerners have a little bit of an independent streak,” he said. “If the people of Utah didn’t vote for the person [regardless of party] I wouldn’t be here.”