Popular Utah Democrat Faces Craigslist Opponent

Associated Press + More

SALT LAKE CITY  — U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson faces his first-ever Democratic primary challenger as he seeks a sixth term.

Polls show Matheson, 50, leading going into Tuesday's Utah primary, and he's sparing no expense to make it to November's general election.

He's spent about $750,000, 37 times more than the $20,000 retired school teacher Claudia Wright raised for her campaign, Federal Election Commission reports show. [See who is giving money to Matheson's campaign.]

Wright, 61, has been called the Craiglist candidate by Democratic activists who recruited her online because they say Matheson votes too often like a Republican. She hopes to win over rank-and-file Democrats angry at Matheson's votes against federal health care reform and an energy bill that seeks to curb climate change.

Wright could get some unsolicited help from Republicans, who might try to muck things up by jumping into the open primary to vote for her, figuring a liberal newcomer might be more easily beaten in November.

Matheson was forced into the Democratic primary by Utah party delegates in May. "I get it: You're angry with some of my votes," he told conventioneers.

The son of a popular former Utah governor, Matheson must appeal to a broad section of Utah. His 2nd Congressional District runs from Salt Lake valley's liberal east bench into vast conservative terrain.

When Democrats took over Congress in 2007, the former energy consultant who is open to oil shale development was rewarded with a seat on a powerful energy and commerce committee.

Party activists started tracking Matheson's actions on that committee and triggered a telephone tree that flooded Matheson's Washington office with hundreds of calls at a time.

"We were showing him we were paying attention," said Tim DeChristopher, who faces federal charges for disrupting former President George W. Bush's final oil-and-gas lease sale in Utah.

DeChristopher posted the Craigslist ad for a "courageous" Democrat willing to take on Matheson.

If he survives the primary, the incumbent Matheson would be favored against Republican nominee Morgan Philpot, an attorney and former state lawmaker who resigned as vice chairman of the state Republican Party earlier this year.

Matheson has solidified his support with each re-election, despite efforts by the Republican-controlled state Legislature that redrew his district to remove much of his Salt Lake County turf and stretched him into Republican country.

But by 2006, Matheson grabbed 59 percent of the district vote. Two years later he won with 63.4 percent.