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Posted at 2:15 PM ET, 02/24/2011

Utah Republicans ponder Matheson's fate

By Aaron Blake

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This is the 12th in an occasional series that focuses on the decennial redistricting process in key states. We call it "Mapping the Future". The series aims to look forward to how the maps in these states could be drawn and what the best and worst outcomes for each party might be. Today we take on Utah. (And make sure to check out the first 11 installments: Texas, Indiana, Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts, Ohio, California, Nevada, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Florida)

Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson is a political survivor of the first sort, holding down a very conservative Utah House district for the past decade.

But Republicans think Matheson will face his toughest opponent ever: redistricting.

The GOP controls the redistricting process in the Beehive State, and in such a heavily conservative state, the dark-red district that Matheson holds sticks out like a sore thumb.

One way or another, the district is going to be very different when Matheson runs for reelection, because Utah adding a district -- from three to four -- thanks to population growth.

Everyone agrees the new, 4th district is very likely to be won by a Republican. But the big question is what happens the Matheson's 2nd district?

Do Republicans go after Matheson and try to take him out, or do they give him a safer district and concede that one Utah district will be held by a Democrat?

There are two basic options for how to re-draw the Utah map. (Be sure to follow along on the congressional map here)

The first is commonly known as the "doughnut model". Under that map, Republicans would tie together all the Democratic parts of Salt Lake County, creating for the very first time a safe Democratic district in Utah. This would allow Republicans to draw three safe GOP districts around the rest of the state, ensuring that Reps. Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz, along with a newly elected Republican, will be reelected handily every two years for the next decade.

The second option is the "wheel model" in which Republicans would create four GOP-leaning districts emanating from Salt Lake City, like the spokes of a bicycle wheel. This would effectively dilute the Democratic base in Salt Lake City -- which Matheson relies upon -- and still leave four winnable Republican seats.

The more likely option for Republican redistricters is the wheel map. Matheson himself has been very vocal about redistricting -- which suggests he's concerned -- and Republicans have suggested that they want four districts with rural components.

"I personally am feeling like I want to have rural representation in all of them, because that's such a big part of our state," Republican state Senate President Michael Waddoups told The Fix.

State Democratic Party Executive Director Todd Taylor, meanwhile, said he fully expects Matheson to get the short end of the stick.

"If they think they can crack the Democratic vote base in such a way that gives them a better-than-even opportunity to win four congressional districts, they'll do it," Taylor said.

But which option is actually worse for Matheson?

In fact, the state legislature has already drawn a map using Option No. 1 -- the doughnut model. The legislature drew the map when it looked as though the state might add a district five years ago, during negotiations for Washington, D.C., to get a vote in Congress. (The deal fell through.)

But if Republicans create a Democratic district in Salt Lake County, there's also the possibility that Matheson could face a significant primary challenge. One potential opponent is former Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson, who is more liberal than Matheson and has been perhaps the congressman's biggest critic.

Anderson told The Fix that he wouldn't rule out such a run.

"I do think that, with a district that did not disenfranchise Democrats to the extent of the gerrymandering last time around, we would have a shot at representation by somebody who didn't vote like an extreme right-winger," Anderson said.

As you may recall from Sen. Bob Bennett's (R-Utah) loss in 2010, Utah has a very odd nominating process, in which activists at a party convention can unseat an incumbent. What fewer people remember from 2010 is that Matheson also had a scare at the Democratic Party convention, when the party base gave him only 55 percent of the vote and forced him into a primary with an unheralded retired teacher, Claudia Wright.

Matheson went on to an easy win in the primary, but if he faces a formidable opponent like Anderson, and in a tougher district, it may be tough for him to get re-nominated.

Given that reality, Matheson could be about as safe under option No. 2 -- the wheel model.

While Matheson would continue to have a very conservative district, he's shown the ability to keep just such a district in the past -- including in a very tough 2010, when many of his colleagues in similar districts lost badly. (Matheson won in with 51 percent.)

Besides, Republicans tried this before, during the 2001 round of redistricting, and it didn't work.

Matheson had won a Salt Lake County district in 2000, when the map was under the doughnut model. After redistricting a year later, the state instituted the wheel model, giving Matheson the eastern half of the state and much of Southern Utah.

He won anyways, so who's to say he wouldn't continue to be able to do so under a new map?

"In general, there's been a concession that the experiment failed," said former state GOP Chairman Stan Lockhart. "If you keep changing his constituent base and he keeps getting reelected, at some point in time, he's going to think he has a chance at a statewide seat." (Matheson's father, Scott, served as governor of Utah in the mid 1970s.)

Under either map, Matheson will have a significantly different district with oodles of new constituents when he runs again in 2012. Even if he keeps much of his district intact, it needs to shrink to make room for the 4th district, and Republicans could try to swap out some of his more Democratic areas for Republican ones.

If Republicans can figure out a way to get rid of Matheson, it would be a major victory -- and a rare one.

Because the GOP won so many seats in so many places in 2010, the party is hard-pressed to create additional winnable districts in redistricting, despite its overwhelming control over the process nationwide.

In many states, Republicans will need to pack as many Democratic voters into a district as possible in order to keep GOP incumbents safe nearby.

Utah, though, could be one of relatively few states where Republicans could actually add multiple seats in 2012. And for a party starved for chances to stay on offense, it's going to be hard to pass up a chance in such a conservative state.

But they need to play their cards right, and Matheson will be no pushover.

By Aaron Blake  | February 24, 2011; 2:15 PM ET
Categories:  Mapping the Future, Redistricting  
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