Big money, more than $1 million, is flowing into Utah's 2nd Congressional District race as the national Republican and Democratic parties trying to defeat or shore up Democratic incumbent Rep. Jim Matheson, a review of federal finance reports shows.
The spending, most of which has come in the last three weeks, shows that while Matheson may be leading Republican John Swallow by more than 30 percentage points in the latest polls — a lead Swallow disputes — the national parties are still willing to pour cash into the race.
As of Tuesday, the National Republican Congressional Committee had spent nearly $864,116 on TV ads, brochures and telephoning in the district, Federal Election Commission reports show. The NRCC says the ads are a fair representation of Swallow's positions and Matheson's votes, although Matheson says criticism of his tax-cutting and abortion votes are "dishonest and just not true."
The NRCC's money goes either into efforts to support Swallow or to defeat Matheson — it is listed both ways on the NRCC's reports.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, meanwhile, has dumped $350,915 into supporting Matheson. Swallow says pro-Matheson ads criticizing his campaign, too, are unfair and unwarranted.
"I'm always concerned about outside groups coming in and slinging mud," said Matheson. He'd hoped that the McCain-Feingold campaign reform law would affect that. "Apparently it hasn't," he said after learning of the NRCC's spending.
But Matheson said the amount of the NRCC's money spent on the 2nd District doesn't worry him.
"They are wasting their money," he said. "I've got enough resources in my own campaign to get the message I want across."
The party committees are running what's called "independent expenditure" campaigns. Historically, such independent expenditure campaigns are more negative and hard hitting than a candidate's own advertising.
Legally, the party PACs can't be talking to or coordinating their TV, radio, direct mail or telephoning with either of the candidates' own campaigns.
While that may be technically true in the 2nd District, it's clear to any TV viewers that the candidates' own ads look very similar to the ads their respective national party PACs are running on their behalf.
And the FEC reports are only current up through Oct. 19. With two weeks left until Election Day, the PACs could still dump hundreds of thousands of dollars more into Utah.
The NRCC is clearly making a big push for Swallow, who lost to Matheson by less than 1 percentage point in 2002.
The amount of the NRCC's spending "shows they see this as an important and winnable race," Swallow said.
In 2002 the NRCC "came in very late — like the last week — did one TV ad with (U.S. Sen.) Orrin Hatch and helped the state party with a mailer. This ($864,116) is significant," he added.
If current spending continues, more than $1 million may be spent by the national GOP here before Election Day.
That would be more money than Swallow's own campaign. Swallow has been fund-raising himself for more than a year and says he's set a record in cash-raising for a candidate challenging an incumbent in a Utah U.S. House race
In addition to the NRCC's efforts, the Utah Republican Party is also sending out pro-Swallow/anti-Matheson brochures.
Swallow said the fact that the DCCC has put in more than $350,000 so far "tells Utahns that they want Jim Matheson in (Congress) and pushing their agenda."
Swallow likes to remind Utah campaign watchers that the DCCC outspent the NRCC here in 2002. And with a little more help back then, he could be the incumbent today.
Political experts say Democrats have little hope of actually taking a dozen seats away from the Republicans in the Nov. 2 election and regain control of the U.S. House they lost in 1994.
But Utah's 2nd District is heavily Republican, and it's galled national Republicans since 2000 that it isn't in GOP hands.
Matheson's precarious political situation has not been lost on his House Democratic colleagues, dozens of whom have donated tens of thousands of dollars from their own campaign accounts to Matheson's campaign.