Utah Democrats, who have not held the state’s top office since 1985, when popular Gov. Scott Matheson left office, hope his namesake will lead them back to power next year.
If Scott Matheson Jr., dean of the University of Utah’s law school and untested as a politician, runs for his father’s old job, he would make the 2004 ballot an unusual family affair — his younger brother, Rep. Jim Matheson (D), is expected to run for a third term next year.
However, given Utah’s highly conservative tendencies, both brothers could face tough fights while putting their family’s legacy on the line. Jim Matheson may have a rematch with former state Rep. John Swallow (R), who came from nowhere to nearly defeat him in 2002. Scott Matheson could confront popular three-term Gov. Mike Leavitt (R) or a well-positioned Republican newcomer. Would voters in the large portion of Utah that makes up Jim Matheson’s Congressional district — nearly all of it rural — be willing to vote for two brothers on one ballot?
Hanging over all this speculation is the question of what role the family name will play. Scott Matheson Sr., who died in 1990, “was a very popular governor, was seen as a moderate and a pragmatist and someone who stood up for Western values,” said Kelly Patterson, political science department chairman at Brigham Young University.
Meg Holbrook, chairwoman of the Utah Democratic Party, said the fact that Scott Matheson’s father was governor “is a tremendous factor. He has almost 100 percent name identification.”
This may help his sons. But beyond name recognition, will younger voters make any connection to an administration that ended 20 years prior? If he runs for governor, Scott Matheson “may be helped more by the fact that his brother is Congressman than his dad was governor,” a Republican source said.
For now, Scott Matheson Jr. would only tell Roll Call, “I have been looking at the governor’s race in Utah. … There will probably be more to say a little bit further down the road.”
Another unknown is whom Matheson’s Republican opponent would be. Leavitt may well seek an unprecedented fourth term, but it is unclear whether the GOP would stand a better chance with or without him. In an April survey by the Deseret News and KSL-TV, 39 percent of Utah respondents said it is “definitely time” for a new governor, while 21 percent said it is “probably time” for one.
“I don’t know if Leavitt will run again,” said Joe Cannon, Utah Republican Party chairman and brother of Rep. Chris Cannon (R-Utah). “Obviously, that makes a big difference as to who the candidates are.”
State Sen. Parley Hellewell is already running for the GOP nomination.
Holbrook all but dismissed Leavitt’s chances. The governor, she said, has “been there, done that, bought the T-shirt, and it’s time to move on.” She also cited recent gubernatorial victories by Democrats in Western Republican strongholds such as Oklahoma, Wyoming and Kansas as evidence that the Democrats can win in Utah.
Ted Wilson, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah and former Democratic mayor of Salt Lake City, suggested that “incumbent fatigue” surrounds the governor, who is only 52, and that Matheson may actually face a tougher fight against a GOP newcomer.
Patterson, however, countered that Leavitt “remains very popular and would be a formidable candidate. If Gov. Leavitt decides to run again, Democrats need a candidate with name recognition and good fundraising and [campaigning] skills.”
If Scott Matheson runs, he will join his younger brother on the ballot in much of the state, since Jim Matheson’s district makes up roughly half of Utah’s land area, including a slice of Salt Lake County. The fact that the bulk of the district is rural, however, could mean trouble for the Congressman.
“Rep. Matheson is in a difficult district,” Patterson said.
Matheson won in 2002 by 2,015 votes over Swallow and lost 11 of the 16 counties he fully or partially represents. It has a “very strong Republican component, and that’s hard to overcome time and time again,” Patterson said.
Matheson was originally elected in 2000 to a more Democratic-friendly district, which was then altered by the Republican-controlled Legislature. Holbrook called its boundaries “beyond belief.”
Rep. Matheson also faces the prospect of a rematch with Swallow, who is “clearly positioning himself to run again,” according to a GOP source. “He thinks he’s the natural guy and wants others to think they aren’t.”
In the end, Scott Matheson may have a better chance at being elected statewide than his brother will in his own district, Wilson said.
Holbrook remains confident and noted that in the 2002 race, Swallow “threw everything, including Dick Cheney [and President Bush], at him,” and Matheson still prevailed. The Congressman has also maintained a moderate voting record, including recently voting in favor of a partial-birth abortion ban, a reversal from prior votes.
Countered Cannon: “I don’t think Jim Matheson is going to be the Congressman next time.”
Rep. Matheson declined to comment and views questions about his brother’s potential run for governor as “speculative,” spokeswoman Alyson Heyrend said.
“He’s really working hard on his own campaign,” she said.
One factor difficult to gauge is the impact of brothers sharing a ballot. It would “create an interesting dynamic,” Patterson said, and would certainly increase attention on the races, as well as enable the Mathesons to campaign together and coordinate on issues.
But just as Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s (R) status as brother of the president can both help and hinder him, the situation “wouldn’t come without baggage,” Patterson said. If one brother says or does something controversial, the other “will be tarred with that brush as well.”
Of course, voters may wonder if at “Thanksgiving dinner, they’ll decide the future of the state,” Wilson said.