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SALT LAKE CITY — Rep. Jim Matheson, the state's lone Democrat in Congress, said Friday he won't challenge U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.
"There has been a great deal of speculation during the past several months about whether I will consider entering the U.S. Senate race," Matheson said in a statement posted to his campaign website. "After consulting with my family, I have made the decision that I will not run in next year's Senate election."
Matheson said in the statement he is "still considering my options and whatever race I choose I will run an aggressive campaign. 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."
After consulting with my family, I have made the decision that I will not run in next year's Senate election.
His spokeswoman, Alyson Heyrend, said the congressman would not comment further.
Hatch reportedly heard the news directly from Matheson earlier in the day. The senator's campaign manager, Dave Hansen, welcomed Matheson's announcement.
"It's a good decision for the state of Utah and for him and his family," Hansen said. "While I'm confident we would have won a race against Congressman Matheson, it still would have been a challenging race."
State Democratic Party Chairman Jim Dabakis said the party will start a search for another challenger to Hatch, who has already seen his most likely GOP challenger, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, decline to run against him.
"We're hunting. We're going to come up with somebody who is competitive. But I don't know who," Dabakis said.
The Democratic Party leader said he did not know the reason behind Matheson's decision, but suggested it could be because of Hatch's huge campaign war chest. Hatch reported having $4 million in cash on hand as of Sept. 30.
"To say money is not part of it would be not recognizing the facts," he said.
Dabakis said he hopes Matheson runs for governor. "I think he'd make a fabulous governor. I think he'd win and I think he'd show the Legislature — they thought they were being so cute with their gerrymandering."
Matheson has said he was looking at running against GOP Gov. Gary Herbert as well as for re-election to Congress. After lawmakers completed the new congressional map last week for the state's now four seats in Congress, Matheson said he also might run in a different district.
He has represented the 2nd District since 2000, but the new map shifts the district boundaries from the east to the west side of the state. It also creates the new 4th District from much of western Salt Lake and Utah counties as well as rural counties. Matheson has not ruled out a run for Rep. Jason Chaffetz's 3rd District seat.
Kirk Jowers, head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics, said the talk is that Matheson will run in the 4th District. So far, the chief candidate in the new district is state Rep. Carl Wimmer, R-Herriman, although other Republicans are said to be eying the race.
But nearly all of Salt Lake City, Utah's Democratic stronghold, is in the redrawn 2nd District, as is Matheson's home. Congressional candidates only have to live in the state they seek to represent, not the specific district.
"I think it's a legitimately difficult decision for him to choose between the 2nd and the 4th Congressional Districts because there are no easy big races for a Democrat in Utah," Jowers said.
That includes the other statewide race Matheson has said he's considering — governor. His decision not to run for Senate suggests he may not take on Herbert, "but it also leaves pregnant the question of why he didn't take governor off the table if he realizes a statewide race would just be a bridge too far," Jowers said.
Herbert said in a statement, "Right now, my number one job is growing jobs. We are prepared to duel with whomever throws their hat in the ring for 2012. We have the right priorities and we have the right message, and no one can dispute our positive outcomes."
In a statewide Deseret News/KSL poll conducted in June, voters were evenly split when asked who they would vote for in a Matheson-Hatch race, with 47 percent favoring Hatch and 47 percent for Matheson. The same poll found that 48 percent of registered voters in Utah surveyed would vote for Herbert while 45 percent would cast their ballots for Matheson in a gubernatorial matchup.