Editor's note: A photo of Rep. Jim Matheson that originally appeared with this story was taken at a Feb. 3, 2011, event and was not from any announcement of Mathesons decision to run in the 4th District.
SALT LAKE CITY — With several high-profile Republicans and now an incumbent Democrat, the race in Utah's new 4th Congressional District promises to be a barnburner.
Rep. Jim Matheson announced Thursday that he will jump from the 2nd District where he has served the past 10 years to the state's new district to seek re-election — a district in which he does not live. And GOP challengers are already eagerly taking shots at Utah's only Democrat in Congress.
"The primary and the general (election) will be must-see politics," said Kirk Jowers, executive director of the University of Utah Hinckley Institute of Politics.
Matheson said the Utah Legislature's redrawing of congressional boundaries this fall prompted his move because the district he has known no longer exists.
"I'm not leaving. The district went away from me," he said.
"Most of us watched with disgust the political games played during the redistricting process," he said. "But lines on a map never defined my approach to this job. From the beginning, it has been my priority to be an independent voice who puts Utah first."
Matheson flirted with running for U.S. Senate and governor before opting for another congressional campaign.
"I think I actually walk into this race as the favorite," he said.
Jowers said Matheson is the only Democrat in Utah that Republicans don't want to face and has made it more difficult "by several fold" for a Republican to win the seat. Matheson, he said, has won six terms and the GOP candidates combined have won zero.
"The 4th District is now the most interesting race in Utah and one of the most interesting in America," he said.
The Blue Dog Democrat joins several well-known Republicans vying to be the new district's inaugural representative.
State legislators — Rep. Stephen Sandstrom of Orem and Rep. Carl Wimmer of Herriman — have already kicked off their campaigns as has attorney Jay Cobb. Saratoga Springs Mayor Mia Love is running but has not made a formal announcement.
Wimmer already ignited the fireworks with a tweet saying, "Is 'bail-out' Jim Matheson actually willing to carpetbag in order to maintain power? I look forward to this race."
In a statement, Wimmer challenged Matheson to "move to the 4th District and stop voting like a liberal. America can't afford more Obamacare, failed stimulus programs, deficit spending and the likes of Nancy Pelosi as speaker."
Sandstrom called Matheson's entry a game changer. "What it means is this race is going to get a whole lot of national attention."
Currently, the 2nd District includes the populous east side of Salt Lake County — a Matheson stronghold — as well as much of rural eastern and southern Utah. The newly redrawn 2nd District is now more heavily Republican as it picked up western Salt Lake County.
The 4th District covers heavily populated southwestern Salt Lake County — an area Matheson represented early in his career — and western Utah County and more rural Sanpete and Juab counties. It is the smallest district geographically, and though largely Republican, it has more Democratic voters than the other districts.
Redistricting parceled Matheson's 2nd District constituents into the four districts. A Democratic Party analysis shows about 6 percent went to the 1st District; 32 percent to the 2nd District; 36 percent to the 3rd District and 26 percent to the 4th District.
Party official Todd Taylor said historical voting trends show Matheson would do slightly but not significantly better in the 4th District.
Matheson said he lives within five miles of the 4th District and doesn't plan to move from his east-side Salt Lake home, noting Rep. Jason Chaffetz does not live in the 3rd District he represents, though redistricting changes that. Members of Congress are not required to reside in the district they represent.
"The political boundaries of the district may be arbitrary, but the people, the communities and their priorities are real and well-known to me," he said.
Matheson said he has been honored to have the opportunity to work for communities such as Millcreek, Murray and Lehi and is energized to renew conversations in places such as Riverton, Kearns and West Jordan.
Though Sandstrom faces a tough intraparty battle, he said he is running against Matheson, not the other GOP candidates. He said he sees the 2012 election as a referendum on the Obama administration. "I believe Jim Matheson has been part of that," he said.
Sandstrom anticipated Matheson's entry and said his campaign has already mapped out a strategy to beat him.
Love said she welcomes Matheson to the race.
"People are angry with the Washington culture and they are hungry for results — not more of the same," she said in a statement. "I am a solution to the problems that have grown out of control under Congressman Matheson's leadership."
Utah Democratic Party Chairman Jim Dabakis called Matheson a "great fix" for the 4th District.
"It was very practical. This was very much a Jim Matheson thing to do. Jim's going to run away with it," he said.
Not so fast, said Utah Republican Party Chairman Thomas Wright.
"Jim Matheson can change districts but he can't change his voting record," he said. "His voting record won't be popular anywhere in Utah."
Wright said Matheson's switch shows he's committed to being a career politician.
Matheson said he has already distanced himself from the Obama administration and that he is not driven by either party's agenda.
"I think Utah voters look at things in a more independent way," he said. "They just don't blindly follow some party label."
Matheson's switch means there won't be an incumbent in the 2nd District. So far, Republicans candidates include former Utah House Speaker Rep. Dave Clark, Cherilyn Eagar, Chris Stewart, Howard Wallack and Chuck Williams.
Democrats were waiting for Matheson's decision before entering a congressional race. Possibilities in the 2nd District include Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon and former party chairman Wayne Holland.