Utah’s favorite sons battle for governor

Can the Democrats capture the conservative state’s chief office?

  • Democrat Scott Matheson Jr. has aligned himself with Republicans, as he tries to win the Utah governor's race


The Democrats’ road to the White House might run through the West — but it won’t go through Utah. While John Kerry and John Edwards have been galloping around Western swing states, such as Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico, they’ve skipped any stopovers in the Beehive State. With the Democratic ticket polling at only 25 percent, there’s not much point, and the only thing a Kerry visit might swing is the state governor’s office — to the Republicans.

Democrats are hoping to regain the office for the first time since 1985, when popular two-term Gov. Scott Matheson Sr. stepped down. Matheson, who died in 1990, was a conservative Democrat who didn’t hesitate to diverge from the national party’s views, even aligning himself with the right-wing Sagebrush Rebellion. His son Jim learned from his example, and is Utah’s only Democratic congressman. His other son, Scott Jr., is now running for governor.

But Republicans also have a favorite son angling for the governor’s mansion. Jon Huntsman Jr. is the heir to the billion-dollar Huntsman chemical fortune, amassed in the 1970s from the invention of Styrofoam "clamshell" containers for McDonald’s Big Macs. Huntsman was a political appointee of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, and gave up a trade ambassador position to run for governor. He overcame current Gov. Olene Walker, former Congressman Jim Hansen and five other contenders in a tight Republican primary, and now hopes to ride his popularity and family reputation to victory in November.

Political analysts expect the most competitive Utah governor’s race in nearly 20 years, and they say Matheson, the underdog, has a shot. The nonpartisan weekly political magazine National Journal says the contest is "highly vulnerable" for Republicans. But in a state where registered Republicans outnumber Democrats nearly 3-1 — and the 1 million independent voters are predominantly conservative — Matheson has his work cut out for him.

What’s the difference?

Matheson, the dean of the University of Utah law school and a former U.S. attorney for Utah, hopes to be part of the recent wave of Democratic governors who have succeeded in conservative strongholds, like Wyoming, New Mexico and Arizona (HCN, 11/25/02: Conservation vote groups optimistic), (HCN, 6/21/04: Oil money rules in the mini-Middle East). "We’re in the process of some change in the West," he says. "It would be healthy to bring some balance to our state government." He is centering his campaign on education reform, arguing that a skilled workforce and Utah’s quality of life will attract businesses to the state.

Huntsman, however, says he’ll use his business acumen to draw new industries and jobs to the state — and then boost education. He tells voters his history with the Bush family could support those goals. "If President Bush is re-elected," says campaign manager Jason Chaffetz, "certainly the personal relationship will help."

Chaffetz says having a friend in the White House could also lead to a resolution over federal land management in Utah, a key issue following the rollback of wilderness protection and the expansion of oil and gas leasing. Huntsman plans to continue the county-by-county dialogue opened by Gov. Walker to address these issues. After a meeting with the Outdoor Industry Association, which has considered moving its multimillion-dollar, biannual trade conference out of Salt Lake City in protest over the wilderness controversy, he also wrote a statement recognizing the importance of wildlands to the state’s recreation economy.

Matheson also vows to continue Gov. Walker’s county meetings. Both candidates approve of a $150 million open-space bond on the November ballot, and both oppose the importation of high-level nuclear waste. The policy overlap could be bad news for Matheson, who will have to stand out to moderate and conservative voters if he’s going to win. That will involve using the tactics that got his father and brother elected. Jim Matheson featured images of George W. Bush in 2002 re-election ads to reach out to Republicans. Scott Matheson Jr. has tried to distance himself from John Kerry, refusing to mention him by name during interviews.

But he faces an equal challenge in trying to separate himself from Huntsman. If Democrats are going to win another Western gubernatorial seat, Matheson’s emphasis on education and his call for balance in state government will have to resonate with Utahns more than Huntsman’s economic plans and family connections.

"If Huntsman were more of an arch-conservative, (Matheson) would have a better chance at getting those independent votes," says LaVarr Webb, former policy deputy for past Gov. Mike Leavitt, R. "The burden is on Matheson to really differentiate himself. So far, I don’t think he’s done that."

The author writes from Paonia, Colorado.

Scott Matheson Jr. 801-485-6890, www.mathesonforgovernor.com

Jon Huntsman Jr. 801-584-5736, www.votehuntsman.com

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