Monday, June 21, 2010

Utah Blackjack

Ed Kilgore describes the situation in Utah's 2nd district like this: Rep. Jim Matheson, a Blue Dog who opposed health care reform, is facing a primary challenge from Claudia Wright, who has solid left-wing views and is an out lesbian. Matheson tends to do pretty well in general election races, getting over 60% of the vote for the first time in 2008, but this is going to be a tough year for Democrats. I don't know how strong Republican opponent Morgan Philpot is, but he's a former state party vice-chair and state rep, so he's not some Alvin Greene character. Kilgore:
The recent Deseret News poll shows Matheson leading Wright 52-33. He is very likely to win, but even so, a close race will be interpreted as a leading indicator of the peril moderate-to-conservative Democrats court by opposing major progressive initiatives, even in a place like Utah.
Given that there's a major risk of Democrats losing the House this year, is the optimal outcome is for Wright to get as close to 50% as possible without hitting it and beating Matheson? That gives you more juice for the party discipline story, without actually raising the chances of Boehner becoming Speaker and turning the House into a chamber of obstructionist horrors for the rest of Obama's first term, right? Just given the poll numbers, I think this means 'vote for Wright' but I'm not in touch with the situation on the ground.


ikl said...

I'm no closer to the situation than you are, but I think that I'd vote for Matheson even if I thought that he would win anyway. I don't see much utility in encouraging this sort of primary challange. This is a genuinely conservative district (not just a slightly right of center one) where Obama got 39% which was actually a great result for a Democrat since Gore and Kerry each got 31%. A generic Dem is not going to win in that district. I'm guessing that Matheson is helped not only by his conservative voting record, but also by coming from a prominent political family in Utah (his father, also a Democrat, was Governor).

As far as I know, Matheson doesn't have a history of bashing national Democrats in the press to build up centrist cred (unlike, for example, Dan Boren of Oklahoma). I also think that it is interesting that he waited until just before the final vote to declare his no vote on health care. This suggests that he might have told Pelosi that he might vote for the bill if she really couldn't find votes elsewhere (and given the size of the Democratic majority, Matheson is one of the first 10 or 15 Democrats who should have been allowed to vote no). In February, Nate Silver ranked him the sixteenth most valuable Dem in the House in terms of voting to the left of his district.

So I'd rather hold onto Matheson's seat even if he doesn't vote with the party too much as long as he is a team player. Especially since the Republicans might just give up and give him a safer seat after the next redistricting when Utah gets another seat in which case his voting record could move somewhat left.

Complicating the situation is that actual Democrats in the district may be relatively liberal (this seems common in the west even in fairly conservative areas). But this doesn't mean that a primary challange is a good use of resources (or worth the small chance that it will cost us the seat). Matheson is probably doing almost as much as he can already considering the district.

Neil Sinhababu said...

A lot of that makes sense to me. But I'm wondering what's gained by a big Matheson primary win over a squeaker. I want him to stay out of recount territory, because that can be messy, but apart from that I don't see what good consequences are created by a big win that aren't created by a small win.

Neil Sinhababu said...

You do give good reasons for playing it safe and voting Matheson, even if you think there's only a small chance he'll lose.

Anonymous said...

ikl, Those of us who are close to the situation know that your conventional wisdom does not apply in this race. (Conventional wisdom rarely applies in Utah.)

First, Claudia Wright is far from a generic Dem. She is running on a populist platform of ending corporate personhood which is broadly appealing in this district that has 40% registered independents. The Repubs put up a career politician as a sacrificial lamb when it looked like Matheson would be the candidate again. The anti-Washington sentiment will favor Wright.

Also, Matheson does have a strong history of bashing national Democrats, including refusing to show up at the DNC in 2008. Until the last few months, he has been unashamed about weakening progressive reforms like climate legislation and health care.

But the biggest issue is that the entire message of Matheson supporters in the primary has been that progressives will never be represented, so we should all give up on our values and goals. A victory for that message will demoralize the party in November and beyond, crushing a great chance to put a Democrat in the Governor's office. The reason for the primary is that many of us realized we could not convince Utah Democrats to show up to the polls to once again swallow hard for the lesser of two evils.

Jonathan Bernstein said...


One other factor here that would suggest support for Matheson is that he's probably the only viable future statewide candidate in Utah for a long time (at least, AFAIK). Even a Ben Nelson type from Utah would obviously be a whole lot better for Dems than Hatch/Bennett -- not to mention whatever the Utah GOP is going to come up with to replace those socialist Senators they've been stuck with.