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SALT LAKE CITY — Rep. Jim Matheson favors doing away with Utah's political caucus system for selecting candidates because he says extreme party factions have too much influence on the outcome.
"I think it's a flawed system. I think it's too easily manipulated by special interest," the Democratic congressman said Tuesday. "We ought to get rid of it not just in Utah but across the country."
The six-term congressman does not face a primary election this year in the state's new 4th Congressional District. But he is engaged in what could be his stiffest competition yet from a conservative Republican.
Matheson told the Deseret News editorial board that open primary elections where the ballot includes both Democrats and Republicans would have a "moderating" effect on the results.
"I think you'll have a more moderate elected official regardless of party under that system generally," he said.
It used to be that people became delegates not knowing whom they would support. But the activists and special interests have learned how to manipulate these things.
–Rep. Jim Matheson
Of course, that line of thinking fits with how Matheson views himself as a congressman and how he believes he has done the job the past 10 years.
"Personally, I think caucuses may have served a role in the 19th century that was really valuable or maybe even in the 20th century when my dad (the late Gov. Scott Matheson) ran," he said.
"It used to be that people became delegates not knowing whom they would support," he said. "But the activists and special interests have learned how to manipulate these things."
Matheson felt the sting of his own party two years ago when a liberal Democrat forced him into a primary election. This year, a candidate at the other end of the political spectrum is challenging him, one he considers extreme.
Matheson's opponent sees pros and cons of caucus system
"On the issues, she's way out there," he said of Mia Love. "She's way out there, if you follow what she's been saying."
Matheson cited Love wanting to eliminate Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security along with the U.S. departments of energy and education.
Love, the mayor of Saratoga Springs, said she sees good arguments for and against the caucus system. But she said it allowed her to win the nomination over a candidate running to the extreme right.
"I was actually viewed as the more temperate and more willing to work with others, and that's why I was elected through the caucus system," she said.
Nobody knows anything about Love's record, Matheson said.
"They will by election day," he said. "I think when people understand where we are on the issues and where we are reflecting what people in Utah think of those issues, I have a lot of confidence things are going to be just fine."
Love said her mantra of limited government, fiscal discipline and personal responsibility resonates with voters. Matheson, she said, will have a hard time painting her as extreme given those values.
"Good luck trying to make that work," she said.
Love has already attracted national media attention. She would be the first black woman from Utah elected to the U.S. House of Representatives should she win in November.
Matheson said he pays no heed to the publicity she gets. "Ultimately, it's people in Utah who make this decision," he said.