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Utah's second congressional district

Utah's second congressional district

By Jenny Brundin

Salt Lake City, UT –

In Utah's second congressional district, Republicans outnumber Democrats by a 4 to 1 margin, though half of voters are unaffiliated. Five-term Democratic incumbent Jim Matheson has managed to transcend party affiliation. His Republican challenger Morgan Philpot doesn't have the name recognition or cash that Matheson does. He's relying on the simple message that to get different results from Congress, voters need to vote incumbents out. KUER's Jenny Brundin profiles this race.

At the entrance to a sunny Saturday U of U football game, Jim Matheson stands next to his election banner looking like a fish going upstream. Thousands of people pass stream by, but occasionally one stops to wish the candidate well.

IVERSON: Just keep up being the Blue Dog that you've always run on, that's the key.

Dennis Iverson is a Republican but votes for the person, not the party. He likes that Matheson's a Blue Dog, a fiscal conservative. While Matheson angered the district's more liberal voters by voting "no" on health care reform, it's a vote that pleased moderate Republicans like Iverson who are the base that matter in the general election.

IVERSON: You voted "no, no, no" and that's when I gave another contribution because you kept your word.

Here's Jim Matheson.

MATHESON: I learned my politics from my Dad. He said just try to do the right thing and let the chips fall where they may. When he was in office, he got beat up by the left and the right, so do I. But I think most people in Utah are pretty comfortable with someone who is not going to be influenced by the simplistic rhetoric that's out there and actually try to get things done.

Crossed off the "to do" list these past two years: keeping out foreign nuclear waste, brokering a wilderness compromise, and speeding up the removal of the Moab uranium tailings pile. But for Republican challenger Morgan Philpot, the issue that should be foremost in voters' minds is this:

PHILPOT: My opponent has been part of a Congress that for 10 years have talked about the problems but they haven't fixed it.

Morgan Philpot is no stranger to the rough and tumble world of politics. He was a state lawmaker from 2000 to 2004, often at the center of contentious floor debates on issues like abortion. He once described Utah's public education beneficiaries as "fat and lazy" from eating too many "pork rinds and soda pop." But his passion in debates helped pass bills, including one giving private school vouchers to children with disabilities. Six years after leaving the legislature for a law degree, Philpot has abandoned his fiery oratory for calm, measured statements about his priorities.

PHILPOT: Fiscal sustainability in America, balancing our budget, spending restraints, and then getting control and access to our lands here in Utah.

The last point is a centerpiece of Philpot's campaign.

PHILPOT: You know how much of Utah is controlled by the federal government?

At this rally in Sandy, several people in the audience yell out "Too much!" PHILPOTT: Too much. Sixty-seven percent. In other words, we get to dictate what happens on 33% of our land.

Philpot says Matheson should be fighting harder for the interests of rural Utahns, who he says, felt forced to the table in wilderness negotiations. Matheson disagrees, saying collaboration is the only way to move forward on lands issues.

PUBLIC LANDS: If you really look at what's happening on the ground though, I am the only person - along with Senator Bennett - whose made any progress on a public lands issue in a generation.

TV AD: (PHILPOT) This November, 86% of Washington DC is up for re-election...

Philpot's campaign has also tried to capitalize on the frustration voters feel towards Congress. Salt Laker Aaron Cummings is upset that Matheson voted to adjourn before a vote on extending the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthiest two percent and some small businesses.

CUMMINGS: My taxes will go up $4,000 dollars next year, if they don't go through.

Matheson cites procedural reasons for the adjournment and says he supports extending the cuts temporarily. Cummings doesn't believe it. Philpot, meantime, also criticizes Matheson for voting for 2009 stimulus bill. Matheson defends his vote.

MATHESON: You know I remember I had the CEO of Micron, big employer here in Lehi, Utah, come to my office, he said Jim you have to do this stimulus. You have to do this. The business community is crying out for this because our economy was going down the drain. That's how serious it was.

Matheson says economists from the left and right say without the stimulus, we'd be worse off. Philpot disagrees, calling the stimulus spending "an epic failure." What would he have done instead?

PHILPOT: Cut budgets, pass the Bush tax cuts, make them permanent and then allow the free market economy in America to be the stimulus.

MATHESON: And his answer wouldn't have done anything in the short term.

Jim Matheson, on KUER's Radio West show said for one, the Bush tax cuts were already in place. On fixing social security, Philpot supports partial privatization.

PHILPOT: Who would we rather have in control of our retirement accounts? My opponent and the rest of Congress who are bankrupting it, or would you like to have control yourself?

Matheson, meanwhile, says the fix lies in reigning in health care costs. Some ideas he points to: Eliminating huge disparities in state per capita Medicare costs. Medical malpractice reform. Tackling the payment system and over-consumption of medical services. Those things weren't in the health care reform package and that's why, he says, he voted "no" on it. Philpot wants to repeal health care reform. Matheson calls that "rhetoric."

MATHESON: If you look in that bill there good things and there are bad things and a more substantive response should be let's keep the good things and let's fix the bad things and let's stand for something, I find that the people who talk about repeal offer no alternative.


Do they have that as a result of health care reform?

At a press conference, Philpot provided few details when asked what a repeal might mean for thousands with pre-existing conditions who now get health care through high-risk pools.


Philpot later said he believe states should oversee health care reforms. Political observers say Philpot's repeal stance and other hard-line positions aren't gaining traction because, Matheson is a moderate. Kelly Patterson is a professor of political science at BYU.

PATTERSON: The one lesson that the Republicans have not seemed to have learned in the Second Congressional District is that a very conservative candidate does not appeal to the necessary number of voters to win that district.

Polls so far show Matheson leading, with 6 days left until the election.

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