Matheson’s Victory Margin Tough for GOP to Swallow

Posted November 19, 2004 at 6:21pm

Republicans scratching their heads over how Rep. Jim Matheson (D-Utah) trounced his GOP opponent in the conservative 2nd district need to look at the advertisements former state Rep. John Swallow (R) and independent pro-Swallow groups ran, analysts say.

“The key in this race was Swallow took a real negative approach in the advertising,” said Jay Evensen, editorial page editor for the Deseret Morning News in Salt Lake City. “We’ve seen time and again here in Utah that that kind of negative advertising does not work.”

Meanwhile, Matheson’s strong victory has some political observers wondering if he will challenge entrenched Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) in 2006.

The National Republican Congressional Committee spent about $1 million on mailers and TV and radio ads while numerous 527s jumped into the fray in this marquee rematch.

Swallow lost to Matheson in 2002 by a mere 1,600 votes when the National Republican Congressional Committee largely left Swallow to his own devices. As this year’s campaign closed — which Swallow lost by 42,000 votes — national and state Republicans were pointing fingers and laying blame on one another.

The state party disavowed controversial campaign literature and refused to mail the last two pieces, ostensibly produced by the NRCC.

The NRCC, however, also declined to take responsibility for the mailers.

“Some of the negative campaigning, particularly from the national Republican Party, did not sit well with a lot of individuals in the 2nd district,” said Rodney Decker, a political science professor at Southern Utah University in Cedar City. “Swallow tried to remove himself [from the controversy] but I’m not sure he did that successfully or credibly.”

Bo Harmon, a spokesman for the NRCC, said he did not know how much the committee’s ads adversely affected Swallow.

“People say they don’t like negative campaigning [in any race], so I don’t know what role that plays,” Harmon said.

Evensen said Republicans should have learned from 1990 when a newspaper ad backfired and helped propel Bill Orton (D) into the heavily Republican 3rd district seat. The ad seemed to mock Orton for being single, and many Utah County voters said it led them to vote for a Democrat for the first time ever. Some Republicans were similarly uncomfortable with Swallow’s campaign, observers concluded.

Swallow claimed Matheson supported late-term abortions even though the Congressman voted for the so-called “partial birth” abortion ban. He also attacked Matheson for votes where he supported legislation backed by other Republicans and even President Bush.

LaVarr Webb, a Utah Republican political consultant and lobbyist, had a blunt message for the NRCC in a column in the Deseret Morning News — “Memo to the NRCC: Stay the hell out of Utah. You don’t help, you hurt.”

Utahans’ apparent aversion to negative campaigning is not the only factor that led to Matheson’s win, however, experts agree.

“Jim Matheson is very likeable,” said Dan Jones, an independent pollster and political science teacher at the University of Utah. “Second, he made the correct votes in Congress to pacify the moderates and keep his party in check, and third, he ran a smart campaign by going to those counties that would have normally voted very Republican.”

Harmon conceded that Matheson’s incumbency was a big obstacle for Swallow to overcome.

“It’s hard to beat an incumbent of any party,” Harmon said. “Not many incumbents lost this year. Regardless of the circumstances, Swallow ran a good, tough campaign, but Matheson was even more entrenched than he had been in his last election.”

Decker said that was no accident.

“Matheson established himself as a person who is interested in the people in the 2nd district by traveling to all parts of the district, even though they [all] didn’t support him,” he said.

Jones said the community still holds the two-term Congressman’s father, the late Gov. Scott Matheson (D), in high regard.

Both Jones and Decker said Swallow’s protracted primary also wounded him and that his negatives went up after he narrowly bested venture capitalist Tim Bridgewater in a rerun of the 2002 GOP battle.

“The primary took a pound of flesh” out of Swallow, Jones said.

Decker said he thinks Bridgewater would have been a tougher challenger for Matheson.

While Matheson ran a basically flawless campaign and Swallow and the Republicans made some tactical errors, no one is ready to say the seat is Matheson’s in perpetuity given how Republican the district votes. Evensen said there is “no question it’s still going to be a vulnerable seat in two years,” although Republicans have no obvious challenger yet.

Overall, Matheson only won five of the 16 counties contained within the district — one of which was populous Salt Lake County — and 19 percent of his votes came from Republicans.

Webb, however, saw warning signs for the GOP in this year’s election results and said that Hatch could have a tougher time in 2006 than people assume. Jones said talk has begun that perhaps Matheson is listening and might consider challenging Hatch.

“What they’re already talking about now is can Matheson win statewide?” he said. “He’s already gone to 29 counties and really cleaned [Swallow’s] plow in Salt Lake County … or does he enjoy the House and seniority?”

Alyson Heyrend, a spokeswoman for Matheson, gave no hint that her boss is thinking ahead.

“Congressman Matheson was very gratified by the margin of victory, and he is so looking forward to working as the Congressman for the 2nd district, and that’s all that’s on his mind right now,” she said.

But Jones said that even though Hatch will be formidable, 2006 might be the best chance Democrats have to defeat him. The party in power generally loses seats in nonpresidential election years and Matheson’s star is looking pretty bright right now.

“The question is, can a Democrat win statewide in Utah?” he said.

If this year’s gubernatorial race, which Matheson’s brother Scott Matheson Jr. (D) lost, is any indication, the answer may be “no.”

Decker said Jim Matheson may aspire to the Senate some day, but he doubts that ascension would come at the expense of Hatch.

More likely, Matheson would wait until either Hatch or Sen. Bob Bennett (R) retires.

“It would be difficult for him to win [against Hatch] and then he would lose that luster of invincibility,” Decker said.