Wanted: Liberal Challenger for Jim Matheson 

Some Democrats frustrated with Matheson's conservatism.

Wanted: Progressive Congressional Representative to represent the people of Utah's 2nd district. Must have solid moral values and a resistance to selling out to corporate interests. Eligible candidate should have a strong commitment to defending fundamental human rights over corporate profits.

That comes from a Craigslist want-ad jabbing at the long-time holder of that seat, Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson. The anonymous Craigslist ad was just one of many—some joking, others serious—calls to challenge Matheson in 2010 with a more liberal candidate. The criticism swelled after the Blue Dog Democrat voted against the House health care reform bill on Nov. 7. Matheson was also criticized during Congress' summer break because he held telephone conference calls with constituents instead of facing them in town-hall meetings.

Democratic Party delegate Bob Aagard, of Holladay, thinks a liberal primary challenger for Matheson would be good for the party because it would force Matheson to tiptoe to the left to win in the primary. But he also thinks it would be good for Matheson in a general election because he could deflect criticism that he shares the same liberal beliefs as a certain Democrat from San Francisco.

“It will help him because the Republicans always say that Jim Matheson equals [Speaker of the House] Nancy Pelosi,” Aagard says. “[A liberal challenger] gives Matheson the opportunity to say, 'Hey, look, this guy is a Nancy Pelosi Democrat. I'm not.'”

While visiting Utah in October, Republican Party National Chairman Michael Steele and Utah Gov. Gary Herbert criticized Matheson for voting for Pelosi for Speaker of the House. While that vote is largely ceremonial, it is something Republicans continually attack Matheson for doing—in large part because he doesn't do many other things that are wildly liberal.

State Sen. Scott McCoy, D-Salt Lake City, flirted publicly with the idea of challenging Matheson recently on Facebook. He has since decided not to run for the nomination, but says Aagard's idea has merit—and risks. One of the most important is that if a true liberal Democrat won the nomination, such as the gay, pro-choice McCoy, the seat would almost surely be lost to a Republican in a the heavily rural and conservative 2nd District.

“The risk is calibrating that strategy so delegates don't actually pick that [more liberal candidate],” McCoy says.

Utah Democratic Party chairman Wayne Holland chastised Matheson's critics as creatures of the Internet who do not understand the district well-enough to offer sound strategy. Supporting a more liberal challenger for Matheson “sounds nice at 2 o'clock in the morning, but it doesn't play out in reality. .... [Matheson] wins by high 50s or low 60s in a district that is in the top 12 most conservative districts in the county. To not have a moderate in that seat would be suicide for the Democratic Party.”

Holland, who is also a labor representative for United Steel Workers, says his first task as party chairman is to reelect incumbents. However, it's natural to have, within a political party, individuals who focus too much on litmus test votes for those incumbents, such as healthcare.

Those votes should not be overemphasized, he says, because Matheson is still far more liberal than either Republican Reps. Rob Bishop or Jason Chaffetz, who represent Utah's 1st and 3rd Congressional Districts. The League of Conservation Voters, for example, gave Matheson a score of 77 percent for 2008, while Bishop and Chaffetz each scored zero. Sens. Orrin Hatch and Robert Bennett scored just 18 on the same analysis.

Instead of looking at Matheson's seat, liberal Democrats might be better suited for the almost-guaranteed fourth seat in the 2012 election. Legislators already have a map drawn that makes the voting base in that fourth district more liberal than the other three, and have said that they plan to stay as close to that as possible. A lot of things could change, including a proposed ballot initiative that would create an independent redistricting commission, but Holland said that is likely that the fourth seat will be more heavily Democratic.

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