Rep. Jim Matheson (D-Utah) had never been challenged in a primary before this year, in which he’s fighting off a political newcomer who could make him the latest incumbent casualty.
Retired schoolteacher Claudia Wright gained traction in Utah’s 2nd district on a strongly progressive platform, while trying to paint the five-term Blue Dog Democrat as inaccessible and out of touch with constituents.
Matheson got 55 percent of the delegates’ votes but needed 60 percent to avoid the June 22 primary.
University of Utah political scientist Matthew Burbank said the convention outcome shows this election will be, more than anything, a referendum on Matheson, who may have alienated his base with his “no” vote on healthcare reform.
“What she has been able to do is be the person who is not Jim Matheson,” Burbank said. “For all the people who are unhappy with Matheson, they’re voting for Wright, and that’s what really happened at the convention.”
Despite her emergence from political obscurity, Wright has some hurdles to overcome. Matheson has racked up endorsements from labor unions, including the Utah Education Association. He also has the support of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC).
“We proudly support Jim Matheson because he stands up for families in Utah, has fought to reform Wall Street and worked to turn our economy around,” Andy Stone, DCCC western regional press secretary, said in a statement.
And Matheson holds a hefty fundraising advantage, with well over $1 million raised compared to Wright’s roughly $25,000.
But Wright argues her lower fundraising numbers belie her campaign’s appeal, given her performance at the state party convention. She said her campaign is refusing to take corporate political action committee (PAC) money, and is instead relying on the media and volunteers going door to door to get out the word.
“Old-style politics, shoe leather and person-to-person, trying to get them to come our way: That’s what we’ve been doing since day one,” Wright said. “We’ve got volunteers across the state who have been doing all of that ... It’s the only way to do this.”
A Deseret News/KSL-TV poll conducted before the state convention showed Matheson is the most popular politician among Utah’s major officeholders. Utah has a unique nominating process, wherein a candidate has to attain a plurality of the vote among a small group of convention delegates. If that 60 percent threshold isn’t achieved, the top two vote-getters move on to a statewide primary.
Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) lost in the convention nominating process, coming in third at the state GOP convention in May, and did not make it onto the primary ballot. Wright is running on a platform of increasing transparency with constituents and getting corporate and PAC money out of campaign finance.
“I think our platform is reflective of the fact that he’s lost his base in a lot of ways,” Wright said.
Matheson’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment.
If Republicans prevail in the fall, they’d flip Utah’s only Democratic seat to their side.
Burbank said it’s “unlikely” much crossover will occur, as few Republican voters will want to sacrifice their votes in the Senate primary to select a GOP candidate to succeed Bennett.
In that race, Republicans Tim Bridgewater and Mike Lee are fighting for the nomination after neither got 60 percent of the delegates’ vote at the state’s Republican convention.
Meanwhile, Wright is contrasting Matheson’s healthcare “no” vote and stances on other issues with her more progressive stances to claim she’s the real Democrat. She also criticized Matheson for being silent on offshore drilling safety in the wake of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
“The only kind of statement he’s made is ‘I don’t know if I want to suspend drilling, but perhaps we should look at safety issues,’ ” Wright said. “You’ve got the biggest environmental manmade disaster in history, and ‘perhaps’ we should look at safety issues?”
Wright has been talking about Matheson’s silence on the oil spill throughout the congressional district.
His campaign put out a release on Tuesday to refute Wright’s claim, saying that Matheson “has spoken out on the oil spill, attended numerous hearings as a member of the Energy and Commerce Committee and supports President Obama’s call for an offshore drilling moratorium.”