SALT LAKE CITY — Rep. Jim Matheson might have gift-wrapped his long-held U.S. House seat for Republican challenger Mia Love.
The seven-term Democrat surprisingly announced Tuesday on his Facebook page that he won't seek re-election in 2014. Matheson survived a nasty, expensive 4th District race with Love last year, winning by fewer than 800 votes. He is Utah's lone Democrat in Congress.
In his Facebook post, Matheson left the door open for future runs at elected office, saying, "It has been a tremendous privilege to serve the people of Utah during my time in the United States House of Representatives, but my time in the House should not be the sum total of my service."
"I think everything's on the table for me right now," he told the Deseret News.
Matheson has been touted in the past as a candidate for governor and U.S. Senate. Both Republican Gov. Gary Herbert and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, are up for re-election in 2016.
"I'm committed to public service. I've been looking at all the offices that are out there," Matheson said. "But I don't want to oversell you on this. There's no specific plan for 2016."
Matheson didn't give a particular reason for deciding to step aside at the end of his current term. He said he didn't consult with Democratic leaders but only with his wife, Amy, before making the decision.
"I've always assumed there were going to be different chapters to my career. Fourteen years is a substantial amount of time to serve in the House. I believe it's time now to look for the next chapter. That's really what the motivation is," he said.
Republicans have tried to close the book on Matheson since he first won the 2nd District seat in 2000. He survived a couple of close elections and GOP redistricting efforts in 2002 and 2012 that he believes deliberately favored Republicans.
Last year, he weathered what he called the perfect storm against him — a gerrymandered district and Utah's favorite adopted son, Mitt Romney, at the top of the GOP ticket. He said the cost and stress of campaigning did not factor into his decision to bow out. Matheson and Love and outside groups spent more than $11 million on the race.
Matheson, who jumped to the new 4th District last year, considers himself an independent voice who puts Utah first. He has bucked his party over the years, most recently on Obamacare. He is co-chairman of the Blue Dog Coalition, a conservative group of 25 Democrats in the House.
His announcement caught both Democrats, who are scrambling for a new candidate, and Republicans off guard.
"I thought if he was going to do it, he would have done it earlier, but it's a nice Christmas present," said Dave Hansen, Love's campaign manager.
Love said it doesn't mean she can relax.
"It doesn’t change anything," she said. "I'm not going to take anything for granted."
The lame-duck mayor of Saratoga Springs has already raised and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on her congressional campaign this year and had $672,000 on hand as of Sept. 30.
Love bid Matheson farewell, wishing him and his family the best and saying he has served the state with passion and dedication.
"I have no ill feelings toward him," she said.
Utah Democratic Party Chairman Jim Dabakis tried to put on a brave face, saying the party looks forward to the upcoming fight in the 4th District.
Dabakis said his office will soon open a 4th District recruiting file, "which we didn't think we'd need, but we do." He mentioned Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, retiring state Sen. Pat Jones, D-Salt Lake City, and former U.S. Senate candidate Scott Howell as possibilities.
Kirk Jowers, head of the University of Utah Hinckley Institute of Politics, said Matheson's departure all but assures the seat will fall into Republican hands. He said it would be nearly impossible for another Democrat to recreate Matheson's campaign magic with one possible exception — McAdams.
McAdams, a personable, conservative Democrat who has shown the ability to raise money, would dramatically change the GOP odds, Jowers said.
Utah will miss what Matheson brings to the state and to Congress, Dabakis said.
"Jim is the latest in a long line of Mathesons who have devoted themselves to being the kind of steward that Utahns can trust," he said. "His pragmatic, roll-up-your-sleeves leadership is something rare to find in modern politics and Utah's Republican Party."
Matheson lists stopping radioactive waste from coming to Utah, a Washington County public lands bill and cleaning up uranium mill tailings in Moab among his accomplishments. He also said getting to know Utahns from all walks of life made him a better congressman.
President Barack Obama issued a statement Tuesday, praising Matheson for his public service.
"Jim Matheson has proudly represented the people of Utah for more than 12 years in the United States Congress," Obama said. "He has been a forceful advocate of our nation’s veterans and worked to strengthen our economy through his support of key trade agreements. Michelle and I thank Congressman Matheson for his service and wish him, his wife, Amy, and their two sons the very best in the future."
Steve Israel, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman, said Matheson always puts his constituents first.
"Jim’s priorities have always been to focus on working together to solve our problems, responsibly put our fiscal house in order and make our country strong for the next generation," he said in a statement.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, was quick to praise Matheson for his time in the House.
“During my 37 years in the United States Congress, I’d be hard pressed to name someone who I’ve enjoyed serving alongside of more than Jim Matheson," Hatch said in a statement. "While we didn’t agree on everything, you always knew that Jim was doing what he sincerely felt was best for our state. From public land rights to standing up for Hill Air Force Base to fighting against Obamacare, I’ve been proud to stand with Jim on behalf of Utahns and the values we hold dear."