Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson is used to big money coming into his 2nd Congressional District re-election campaigns — money to pay for negative ads run against him, money helping his GOP opponent or cash spent on pro-Matheson ads.

But so far in 2006 that traditional outside cash hasn't shown up.

Matheson has already seen the U.S. Chamber of Commerce running two pro-Matheson TV ads — ads that ended Friday by Federal Election Commission law. But there's been no major spending by national party PACs either for or against him.

"I prefer that elections be debates between candidates and the voters," said Matheson. So he would welcome having no outside groups running ads — be they positive or negative. "I'm guessing we won't be seeing" large sums of outside money this election if we haven't seen it already, Matheson said.

Independent groups may be staying out in part because Matheson holds a healthy lead over GOP challenger LaVar Christensen in the polls. In addition, several Washington, D.C. pundits have put Utah's 2nd District in the "likely Democratic" election column, little danger of going to Republicans.

"I'd like to think that I've established myself as a real strong candidate," said Matheson. "So these groups chose to spend their resources elsewhere."

Christensen, a state representative from Draper, says he doesn't know if any outside groups will come in, but he'll just keep on talking about why Utah and America need dependable conservative representation.

"America needs Utah," Christensen says. He says his election "could tip the balance in the right direction" as Republicans could otherwise lose their majority come November.

Two conservative GOP groups, the Club For Growth and the National Republican Congressional Committee, who dumped big bucks into the 2nd District in 2002 and 2004 have so far stayed out. Also not seen are any Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee pro-Matheson ads.

In 2004, Club For Growth had spent just over $200,000 by mid-September in anti-Matheson and pro-John Swallow (Matheson's GOP opponent) advertising. It was Swallow's second run at Matheson, having lost to him two years before by less than 1 percentage point.

Also in 2004 the National Republican Congressional Committee — the national GOP's U.S. House political action committee — dropped in more than $1.1 million in TV and print ads that either supported Swallow or attacked Matheson.

The DCCC, the Democrats' version of the NRCC, spent more than $640,000 in pro-Matheson, anti-Swallow ads in 2004.

Swallow crashed and burned two years ago, losing to Matheson by 56-44 percent in a district that went heavily for Republican President George Bush that election.

Now comes 2006, and a July Deseret Morning News/KSL-TV poll by Dan Jones & Associates shows Matheson ahead of Christensen, 64-23 percent.

In 2002, Swallow's first run against Matheson, the Republican took great pride in touting how the Club For Growth was jumping into his race. The Club, which is a conservative, anti-tax, anti-government organization, backed Swallow early and at one point made up one-fourth of Swallow's campaign cash.

Christensen has met with Club leaders in Washington, D.C., says Club executive director David Keating. But so far, no Club cash or ads have come Christensen's way.

"We were heavily involved in a number of primary races" this summer, Keating said Wednesday in a partial excuse for no early Utah spending. "The election is still two months away. And (the Matheson/Christensen) race is still one we are watching" as the Club turns its direction toward final matchups.

In rare instances, says Keating, the Club has dumped expensive ads into races as late as the last week before Election Day. But he won't say if any Club money will be coming into Utah.

Still, outside ads are a two-edged sword. In past elections, several anti-Matheson ads were harsh by Utah standards, and may have even helped the incumbent. "Those messages in the past were not ones that I necessarily agreed with as far as how they were presented," said Christensen.

Before several hundred thousand dollars would be spent here, the Club would poll the district, said Keating. And Keating said he hasn't yet decided whether to poll in Utah's 2nd District.

National surveys show that Republicans could lose their 15-seat majority in the U.S. House, which has the NRCC first seeking to shore up incumbents not challengers.

"We are an incumbent-retention PAC first and foremost every election year," said Mary-Sarah Kinner, deputy press secretary for the NRCC.

She said that with the close incumbent races this year, the NRCC is more intently watching those contests. She declined to say why no NRCC money had yet to come in for Christensen, or whether that would happen any NRCC money would later come into his race.

Christensen isn't waiting for any outside help. He's now running TV ads about how he's pushed traditional Utah values in his state House work.

"If the Democrats were to take control of Congress, that would not be good for America." Republicans stand for making the tax cuts permanent, continuing the war on terror, "on giving us the energy we need or preserving our moral heritage — those issues Utahns feel so strongly about."

Matheson is a "watered down" version of national Democrats, said Christensen. And despite a few conservative votes he may have made, "the only vote that matters to Utahns is his vote for Democratic leaders" in the House, and that single vote will harm the state and nation, said Christensen.


E-mail: bbjr@desnews.com