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Washington • Two major Republican groups are running radio and TV ads claiming Rep. Jim Matheson is a supporter of wasteful spending.
Such political attacks have become commonplace for the moderate Democrat, but what's odd is that the groups would run thehit pieces in Utah just a few months after they completely ignored Matheson's 2010 re-election campaign, which he narrowly won.
"The timing of this year is unusual. It's so early," Matheson said. "The campaign seems to never stop."
Crossroads GPS, a conservative group that doesn't disclose its financial backers, produced radio ads in 22 House districts, some trying to protect recently elected Republicans and others targeting Democrats, such as Matheson.
The 60-second ad starts with President Ronald Reagan's famous quote: "Government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem." It seeks to tie Matheson to the fiscal agenda of President Barack Obama and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, for voting against a 2010 budget bill that cut money from a variety of programs.
Crossroads, which has ties to Karl Rove, says it spent a little more than $37,000 on the ad airing on radio stations around Salt Lake City and St. George, just part of the broader $450,000 campaign that ends Tuesday.
The National Republican Congressional Committee has also got into the mix, spending nearly $15,000 on three weeks of television ads that will appear on Fox News until March 10. The NRCC spot marks its first of the 2012 election cycle and it highlights the second anniversary of the economic stimulus bill, claiming it was ineffective. Matheson was the only member of Congress from Utah to vote for that legislation.
The NRCC also funded automated phone calls to voters slamming Matheson for his stimulus vote and his vote against the recent budget bill.
Matheson brushed off the ads in an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune, while also taking issue with their claims.
"I think the people in Utah have got to know me and my approach," he said, noting that groups have run similar campaigns against him since he joined the House in 2001. "The partisan rhetoric really gets discounted by people in Utah."
He said the public should ignore what Democrats and Republicans say about the stimulus bill and listen to economists, many of whom say it did help stabilize the economy following the housing crisis.
And Matheson said he voted against the GOP's budget bill because he thought the spending cuts were uneven, with some programs eliminated and others left whole. He called for "a shared sacrifice" that would include cuts in generally protected areas like defense and federal health programs.
Matheson beat his 2010 GOP challenger Morgan Philpot by four percentage points and neither Crossroads nor the NRCC spent money on the race. If they had, Philpot is convinced that he would be the congressman right now.
"We would have closed the gap and surpassed it," he said. "I'm glad they learned. I'm glad we as a campaign can show people what is possible. I hope from here on out they will be here when we need them."
Philpot, who did get some help from the tea party-affiliated FreedomWorks, is exploring another run for Congress. He won't make an announcement until late this year, but he did say this: "The prospect is a very good one."
Tyler Houlton, a spokesman with the NRCC, said the committee had to prioritize its money to be effective in as many races as it could, and he noted the GOP did win back the House.
Philpot surmises that Matheson's relatively easy wins in 2006 and 2008 made national Republicans skeptical of Philpot's chances, but with far fewer moderate Democrats remaining, Matheson becomes a natural target in 2012, particularly because the state Legislature will redraw his district as part of the once-a-decade redistricting process.
Houlton confirmed that Matheson is one of NRCC's top-tier targets, and as such, they are ramping up their criticism of the six-term congressman.
Utah's lone Democrat in Congress
The national Republican Party largely stayed out of Utah's 2nd Congressional District race last year. But after a closer-than-expected challenge of Rep. Jim Matheson by GOP hopeful Morgan Philpot and a Republican takeover of the House, there appears to be renewed interest in the contest. Money and ads already are flowing.
To see the ads:
Crossroads GPS •