In his Washington office, six-term Utah Rep. Jim Matheson, a Democrat, sits coolly with his right foot perched on his coffee table, black cowboy boot exposed as he explains why he has got this year's election under control.
"This isn't my first rodeo," he says. "I am perpetually on the target list. This is nothing new."
On the ground though, he's playing in a new arena. [See How a Do-Nothing Congress is Stalling the Economy.]
Matheson, who currently represents Utah's 2nd District has chosen to campaign in the new 4th District after he said the Utah state legislature essentially "blew up" his old stomping ground,
And after two thirds of Matheson's base was siphoned off into the state's three other districts, Utah's 4th has more new constituents than familiar faces.
Matheson's new district contains younger suburban families, some of whom are strapped with underwater mortgages and are less familiar with his family's political legacy in the state - his father was a governor.
No doubt redistricting has made Matheson's future in Congress more ambiguous, but throughout his tenure, Matheson has consistently held the most conservative district in the country represented by a Democrat. Knowing it'd be an uphill climb, Matheson toyed with the idea of running for governor and retiring from the House, but decided Congress needed more moderates.
Utes, as people from Utah are called, have not been afraid to split a ticket in the past, but Republican presidential candidates win in landslides in the state. GOP candidate John McCain earned a whopping 62 percent of the vote in 2008 and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who successfully ran the Salt Lake City Olympics and has support from fellow Mormons in Utah, is expected to dominate the state and mobilize voters to the polls. [See: Latest political cartoons]
"Utah has gone from one of the highest voter turnout states to one of the lowest and the Romney Tsunami will probably correct that," says Kirk Jowers, the director of the Hinckley Center for Politics at the University of Utah. "There will be so many more voters for Romney that it could end Matheson's winning streak."
But Jowers says it's a tight race because Matheson's record and responsiveness to constituents makes him consistently one of the top two most popular politicians in the state.
Matheson, a former co-chair of the Blue Dog coalition, sometimes strays from party discipline and votes independently, raising the ire of the Democratic leadership.
On foreign policy, Matheson's record looks more Republican than Democrat. He voted to extend the PATRIOT Act, and he voted for military intervention in Iraq. It's hard to pin him down as socially conservative or economically liberal.
He opposes abortion, but supports embryonic stem-cell research. He voted for the Dodd-Frank reform of Wall Street, but was also one of five Democrats to support Cut, Cap, and Balance Act, which would have increased the debt ceiling by $2.4 trillion, made dramatic future cuts in spending and introduced a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution.
In March 2010, Matheson was one of 34 Democrats to vote against president Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act. And while he voted against the House's repeal vote in January 2011, Matheson voted on a July repeal, after the Supreme Court upheld the law, because he says he came to the conclusion that Congress could do better than the existing legislation.
Matheson voted to hold George W. Bush's White House counsel Harriet Miers in contempt of Congress after she refused to cooperate in a congressional investigation and also joined 16 other Democrats to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt for refusing to turn over thousands of pages of subpoenaed documents.
"This wasn't a Republican or Democratic vote, everyone ought to be held accountable," Matheson says. "We ought to get the documents out there, let the chips fall where they may."
While Republican opponents have criticized him and called him opportunistic for playing both sides of the aisle, Matheson says his independent streak is symbolic of his Utah district
"The electorate is so fed up with the partisan bickering right now and I share that frustration with them" Matheson says. "I think my opponent wants to put me in this box, but people in Utah know that is not who I am."
Responds his opponent Mia Love: "Matheson's got to please his Democratic friends, while also trying to save his job and it doesn't bode well."
Love is running on a platform of fiscal discipline, limited government and personal responsibility. She shares the views of the Tea Party, but says she's not fond of labels The conservative mayor of Saratoga Springs, fitness instructor, and mother of three surprisingly beat out other GOP competitors in the primary, winning 70 percent of the delegates at the state Republican convention. But the fact that Love could be the first black, conservative woman in Congress has led to a national media blitz.
"I have probably never seen more excitement about a challenger in my lifetime," Jowers says. "People are interested in her, they are intrigued by her life story."
As Love tells it, her parents came to the United States from Haiti with $10 in their pockets. Her mother worked as a nurse, while her father took several jobs including scrubbing toilets to make ends meet.
Love, who adamantly opposes social welfare programs like food stamps, school lunch programs, earned tax credits and federally subsidized student loans, says her parents never took a handout and instilled in her a sense of responsibility to "not be a burden on society" and "to give back."
Love supports shuttering the Departments of Education and Energy. She has said she would like to see Medicare and Medicaid revamped.
Love was born in Brooklyn and moved to Connecticut where she attended the University of Hartford and graduated with a degree in fine arts, a degree which she sometimes puts to use on the campaign trail when she occasionally sings.
After meeting her husband Jason, who was on a mission in Connecticut, Love moved to Utah and converted to Mormonism. She took her first stab at public office as a city councilwoman in Utah. After serving two terms, Love ran a successful campaign for mayor.
During her time in city government, Saratoga Spring's population exploded as the suburbs around Salt Lake City expanded. But when the housing bubble burst, property tax revenues plummeted. Love says her city was forced to make major reductions in the budget, which included major staff and service cuts. The city council also voted to raise taxes at the time.
As mayor, Love says she worked with the city council to lower the residential property tax and Saratoga Spring earned the highest bond rating available to a city of its size. Her slash not spend attitude is popular in Utah where voters believe the only way up is by your own bootstraps. "I am laser-focused on making sure we tighten our belts and get Washington to live within our means and make sure that we promote personal responsibility," Love says.
National Republican Congressional Committee spokeswoman Andrea Bozek says Love is the candidate the campaign committee has been waiting for for nearly a decade.
"Mia is a rising star," Bozek says. "She has proven herself."
A natural campaigner, Love spends a lot of time knocking on doors, fundraising and getting the word out about the state's new "vote by mail" program, which allows Utes to vote in the comfort of their own homes and could ensure Love gets her district's Republican majority mobilized. Still, a local Deseret News/KSL-TV poll showed Love lagging 15 points behind incumbent Matheson.
And Matheson has the backing of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which has already purchased nearly $400,000 of ad time from mid October to election day. Matheson has already raised more than $1.5 million. But in the second quarter Love was clipping at his heels, raking in $355,100 compared to his $361,500.
"This is the year we retire Jim Matheson," she promises
Jowers says he hears from a lot of voters in the 4th District who are on the fence.
"I think the great thing about this race is that everyone I talk to seems to say 'Why can't we have both of them back in D.C?'"
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