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Matheson Brand Trumped Top of the Ticket in Utah

How the popular Blue Dog Democrat won a tight race against a GOP rising star

Those close to Utah Rep. Jim Matheson describe him as data-driven and deeply involved in his own campaign strategy, so the Blue Dog Democrat knew exactly the herculean task he faced in 2012.

One of the most vulnerable incumbents in the country, Matheson called his challenge the “perfect storm.” Seventy-five percent of his redrawn and heavily Republican district was new to him, Mitt Romney was at the top of the GOP ticket in the heavily Mormon state, Republicans nominated an energetic and potentially historic candidate in Mia Love and more than $2.2 million was spent against him on the airwaves by outside groups.

Yet, he still won.

“Those were the four corners of the playing field that created by far the most powerful opposition I’ve faced,” Matheson said in an interview. “It gives me confidence that I succeeded in this environment. I don’t think the moon and the stars will line up against me ever again like they did this time.”

The story of how he did it doesn’t vary much from any of his campaigns in the past, Matheson and his consultants said in interviews this week. A member of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition, Matheson has kept a small and consistent team over the years, using Democratic strategists Karl Struble for media and Jim Crounse for direct mail. He added John Anzalone this cycle after his former pollster retired.

Matheson’s district has always tilted toward Republicans, so finding voters willing to split their ticket was nothing new. However, the sheer number of ticket-splitters — Romney won 73 percent statewide and is believed to have gotten close to that in the 4th District — is nothing short of remarkable.

“I don’t think we did anything uniquely different from my other races,” Matheson said. “We had an aggressive ground game, which I always try to do. We stayed disciplined to talk about the issues that created the biggest difference. I also think just the general approach of who I am.”

There is an unmistakable Matheson brand in Utah that has solidified during many years of his family’s public service. Matheson’s late father, Scott Matheson, was elected in 1976 to his first of two terms as governor, and Grover Cleveland appointed his great-great-grandmother as a postmistress, Matheson said.

“He started out the race with 60 percent favorable ratings and ended the race with 60 percent favorable ratings,” Anzalone said. “I’ve just never seen numbers like this. Given the self-ID for Republicans in this district, his popularity rating is really unbelievable. It just defies party politics — he’s just kind of a son of Utah.”

One challenge for the campaign was to highlight that brand amid a torrent of outside noise, including a plethora of negative ads against both candidates.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, House Majority PAC and other Democratic-aligned outside groups spent about $2.3 million against Love, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That is slightly more than what the National Republican Congressional Committee and GOP groups spent against Matheson.

Struble said Love and the NRCC hit the airwaves before Matheson and the DCCC. After Love’s much-hyped appearance at the Republican National Convention in August, Matheson’s lead disappeared.

“We had to scream at the DCCC to start spending money for us,” noted Struble, who said DCCC Chairman Steve Israel of New York and committee strategists believed Matheson was doing so well he didn’t need them. “But ultimately the committee and Israel came through in spades.”

With so many independents and Republicans expected to support Romney and Republican Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, the other challenge was to give those voters reason and encouragement to also back Matheson over a viable Republican opponent.

So one of the incumbent’s last two ads featured a string of Republicans from the business and banking world, mayors and former state legislators stating that they were voting for Matheson. One said he was voting for Romney and Matheson.

“In many ways, what we were doing was giving Republicans permission to split the ticket,” Struble said. “There were other people like them.”

Matheson’s earlier ads aimed to establish his independent credentials. His contrast ads used clips of Love voicing support for cutting the Department of Education and privatizing Social Security.

Matheson said that along with highlighting his independent approach to governing, it was vital to illustrate for voters the clear differences between the two candidates. That was the message used in TV ads, mail and the field program, as Matheson focused on staying visible in the Salt Lake County district by visiting businesses, participating in parades and harvest days, and attending cottage meetings in people’s homes.

“Ultimately, in every election people are making a choice between two candidates,” Matheson said. “I think there was an effort, as there always is, by my opposition to make this more a national party race and not about issues, and I actually tried to make it about issues.”

Matheson said Love and the NRCC “ran a really good campaign against me.” The NRCC’s ad strategy included TV spots that featured headshots of Matheson next to Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California and President Barack Obama. One ad had side-by-side clips of Matheson and Obama using almost identical rhetoric.

“Jim Matheson is a nice enough guy, but he’s let us down, and there is too much at stake for America,” an announcer in one of the ads said.

The Matheson campaign polled a lot, Anzalone said, and the race was “dead even” during the final five weeks of the campaign. As two newspaper-sponsored polls released the weekend before the election showed Love with a sizeable lead, the Matheson campaign’s tracking ended with Matheson ahead by a single point. That’s where the final result stood as of Thursday, though votes were still being counted.

“The basic thrust of the campaign was just reminding people what they like about Jim, and that’s about it,” Crounse said. “It was hard, and she was a tough opponent, but people really appreciate who Jim is.”

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