Matheson met with Hatch Friday morning to inform the six-term senator that he'd decided not to run for Senate. The two had a similar meeting six years ago in which Matheson told Hatch he wouldn't challenge him.
Matheson was considered the most formidable challenger to Hatch, who has beat back a string of feeble challengers over his past several elections.
This time, Hatch is widely believed to be vulnerable and has various tea party-affiliated groups eager to see him follow the path of Sen. Bob Bennett, who was ousted at the 2010 convention by an uprising of delegates.
Hatch's campaign manager, Dave Hansen, said that he thinks Matheson made a wise decision to not challenge Hatch.
"He is obviously a popular political figure in the state of Utah," Hansen said. "While I believe we still would have been victorious, it would have been a challenging campaign."
Earlier this month, The Hill, a Washington-based newspaper that covers Congress, said a Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee poll showed that Matheson would trail Hatch by just six percentage points if he got into the race. An earlier Tribune poll found that Matheson trailed Hatch by five points in a hypothetical matchup.
Earlier this month, Matheson reported having more than $518,000 in the bank at the end of the most recent filing period. Hatch had just more than $4 million on hand.
"I think it would have been a real uphill battle for Matheson to try to pull that off," said Matthew Burbank, a political science professor at the University of Utah. "I think he's as well positioned as any Democrat could have been, but it's still a really tough thing."
"For Senator Hatch, this is clearly good news, because while I think his biggest concern at the moment is getting through the nominating process without major scars, I think the prospect of facing Matheson would have been more challenging than his recent elections," Burbank said.
And it creates a problem for the Democratic Party, which Burbank said has struggled in recent years to recruit credible candidates for statewide offices.
Jim Dabakis, chairman of the Utah Democratic Party, said he is "deeply disappointed" by Matheson's decision.
"I was hoping Jim was going to run for Senate and for governor and for Congress," he joked. "I guess that idea is shot."
Dabakis said Matheson would have been a solid candidate, but he has talked with others former state Sen. Scott Howell, former state party chairman Wayne Holland and Internet entrepreneur Pete Ashdown, who ran against Hatch six years ago about running against Hatch.
"We'll find somebody, and that person will pull one of the great surprises," Dabakis said.
Throughout the congressional redistricting process, Matheson steadfastly insisted he was keeping all of his options open, which included a Senate bid, a run for the governor's office that his father once held, or running for Congress in his district or, if it was more favorable, a neighboring district.
Gov. Gary Herbert will hold a major fundraiser in two weeks, with the threat of a challenge from Matheson one of the arguments made to secure donors.
"I am still considering my options, and whatever race I choose I will run an aggressive campaign," Matheson said. "It is an honor and a privilege to serve Utahns in the U.S. Congress and my desire to give back to my state through public service is as strong as ever."
Matheson has managed to win re-election repeatedly in his GOP-leaning district, although he narrowly defeated Republican Morgan Philpot, winning by just 5 points in the 2010 race.
The Utah Legislature changed the current 2nd District considerably, swapping southeast Salt Lake County for the southwest, and running the rural part of the district down the west side of the state instead of the east. It also now stretches north into Davis County.
Democrats and Republicans have disagreed over how much more of an advantage a Republican candidate would have in the new 2nd District, but they agree the district is more Republican than the current district.
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