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Orderville • "Federal" is a bad word here, and Democrats in Washington get a lot of the blame for what many rural southern Utahns consider big-government intrusions and restrictions on public lands.
"We're afraid of Democrats that they're going to change our lifestyle, that government's going to take too much," said McLain Cox, a young voter who works in his father's log furniture shop. "We like to think that a man is a lot more than what the government tells him to be."
Republicans outnumber Democrats 4-to-1 in the 2nd Congressional District, according to state registration records, though nearly half the district's voters are not affiliated with any party.
So why do Cox, his neighbors and the sparsely populated desert and valley communities of the 2nd District keep seconding a slab of metropolitan Salt Lake City voters in electing U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson, a Democrat? First elected in 2000, when the district was largely an urban northern Utah enclave, he has survived four re-election campaigns the recent ones by blowout margins since Republican legislators redrew the map to include a broad swath of the conservative south.
Cox, wearing jeans and a paint-stained T-shirt dusty from sweeping wood shavings, floated a folksy theory, or what he called a "real hick answer" worthy of his peers.
"He hunts," Cox said of the congressman. "If you don't hunt, you're not a part of the thing."
(Actually, Matheson concedes, he's not a hunter, though he prides himself on fighting for continued sportsman access to public lands crucial to the state's pioneer heritage.)
That image of Matheson as a man of his people, the son of a popular late governor who was himself a southern Utahn in childhood, is part of what the state's political scientists say enables him to transcend parties and win voters on a personal level. And it doesn't hurt that he visibly bucks his party's priorities at times, most recently voting against federal health care reform and advocating extension of all of the Bush-era tax cuts.
Orderville is a wide spot on U.S. Highway 89 east of Zion National Park, tucked under juniper-studded orange and off-white cliffs. Clay deposits support pottery shops, and Cox likened his community to that soil: stubborn when hardened.
"Once you bake it, it's set," he said. "Once [Matheson] proved to us that he was a conservative Democrat, it was set in our heads that he's a good guy to vote for."
The numbers from the previous district election, in 2008, show Matheson has broad crossover appeal in southern Utah. Kane County, including Orderville and anchored by heavily Republican Kanab, chose Matheson over GOP challenger Bill Dew by a 1,591-1,454 margin. That's in a county where registered Republicans outnumber Democrats by better than a 6-to-1 margin. Matheson also won neighboring Iron County, a larger Republican community, by a 4-percentage-point spread. He lost only three of 13 counties or partial counties in the district Garfield, Utah and Washington while winning 73 percent to 27 percent in a part of Salt Lake County where Republicans outnumber Democrats by nearly 3-to-1, but where independent voters outnumber partisans of both major parties combined. Overall, he won with 63 percent of the vote.
The candidate himself, this fall facing challenger Morgan Philpot, won't discuss any particular reasons for his Republican appeal.
"There's a lot more to this than Democrat vs. Republican," he said. "Utahns look at the person."
There's no single reason no bill or position, he said to explain support in a place like Kane County.
"I've listened to people," is all he would offer.
One position that he acknowledges has won broad approval is his opposition to radioactive threats. Matheson, whose father, Scott, died of cancer linked to nuclear weapons tests upwind in Nevada, has scorned plans to import nuclear waste or resume underground weapons tests, and pushed for cleanup of uranium tailings near the Colorado River at Moab.
That stance is a winner in a state where thousands whose families were marred by radioactive fallout carry long memories, said John Howell, Southern Utah University political scientist.
"Especially with older people in the district," he said, "that issue is still floating around out there."
Matheson's biggest advantage, Howell said, is that people know him. That's especially important with people in rural, essentially closed communities. They liked his dad and they identify with him, even if they don't always agree with him or his party.
"You say, 'Well, he's a good man,' " Howell said. "That carries a lot of weight with people in the type of culture that Utah has."
Then there's his voting record, and a complex dance with liberal voters that has included support for traditional marriage laws but opposition to a military ban on gays and lesbians. Turning to the computer in his Cedar City office, Howell logged on to the American Conservative Union's website to check Matheson's lifetime voting grade on a zero-to-100 scale. He scored a 40, compared with some Democrats who rate a zero with the group.
"Matheson is hardly a screaming, venom-spitting liberal," Howell said. "He's slightly to the left."
In his upper-level political science classroom, Howell asked students why they think Matheson has owned the district for a decade. Some mentioned Salt Lake County's dominance (the portion of the state's largest county that is in the district accounts for 55 percent of the voters). Others said he would be called conservative in any other state. But one, Jay Sorenson, put a knowing smile on his professor's face when he recounted a personal visit the congressman had paid students on SUU's campus.
"He's a nice man," Sorenson said.
Philpot, the Republican challenger, sees only two reasons for voter acceptance over the past decade, he said. "Indifference and name recognition."
In good economic times, Philpot said, people may be indifferent to their representatives if they're not doing any harm. "What's starting to be recognized is that Congress is starting to do more harm."
Name recognition clearly plays a role, Utah State University political scientist Michael Lyons said. What has kept the door open with conservative voters is a willingness to vote with Republicans and, maybe most of all, a perception that he's accessible, including the symbolism of maintaining his primary family home in Salt Lake City, he said.
"Having said all that, I think Matheson has pulled off something quite remarkable, winning election after election in a district configured like that," Lyons said, because his favorable factors can never add up to an electoral slam dunk.
"He always needs to be prepared to put on a full-court press."