SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson, Utah's only Democrat in Congress, announced Tuesday that he will not seek re-election, easing the way for Republicans to pick up another House seat in a solidly red state.
Matheson was expected to face a tough repeat challenge in 2014 from Saratoga Springs Mayor Mia Love, a Republican he narrowly defeated in 2012.
While Utah Democrats admitted Matheson's decision not to run for an eighth term is a blow, they're hoping it will set him up to challenge U.S. Sen. Mike Lee or Gov. Gary Herbert, both Republicans who are up for re-election in 2016.
Matheson announced the news in a Facebook posting and subsequent statement from his office Tuesday afternoon.
"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," he said in the statement.
The 53-year-old represents Utah's 4th Congressional District, which covers a string of Salt Lake City suburbs stretching south along the Wasatch Front to Sanpete County.
He first ran for Congress in 1999 and has managed to hold on to the seat for seven terms in a state where Republicans dominate politics and hold most elected offices.
During his time in Congress, Matheson has staked himself out as a member of the fiscally conservative "Blue Dog" Democrats.
He is also the son of popular former Utah Gov. Scott Matheson, the state's last Democratic governor, who served until 1985.
The rematch between Matheson and Love was expected to be the state's most competitive contest in 2014. Their 2012 battle was the most expensive in Utah history, with both candidates and outside political groups spending a combined $11.2 million.
Oregon Rep. Greg Walden, the head of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said in a statement Tuesday that Matheson's departure allows Republicans to devote their efforts and resources to other competitive races.
Love said Matheson's announcement doesn't change the way she will approach the race.
"I'm going to do everything I can to work hard and earn every vote," she said. "I respect his decision and wish he and his family the very best."
If Love wins next year, the 38-year-old would be the first black, female Republican elected to Congress.
Utah Democratic Party Chairman Dabakis lamented Tuesday's news but said he understands Matheson's reasons.
"Jim Matheson is the quintessential kind of person we need in Washington," Dabakis said. "It's disappointing not just to Democrats, but to many, many Utahans."
While the departure stings in the short term and likely catapults Love to the favored candidate, Dabakis said it could lay the foundation for Democrats to make a serious bid for governor or the U.S. Senate in 2016, should Matheson choose to run.
Tim Chambless of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics said he wouldn't be surprised if Matheson launched a bid for Lee's seat or the governor's office in 2016.
Democrats would unite behind him for either seat, and Matheson has shown he has the political instincts to go toe-to-toe with Republicans, Chambless said.
Damon Cann, a political scientist at Utah State University, said the race against Love "was going to be bruising" and Matheson was not guaranteed a win. By stepping down now, Cann said, it leaves Matheson better positioned for 2016.
"If he were to run and be defeated in his congressional election this year, he would be a weaker candidate than if he steps down now, doesn't seek re-election and doesn't have a loss added to his record," Cann said.
Cann said Matheson is the best candidate Democrats have on the horizon.
"There's no other name in Democratic party politics in Utah that has the same sort of cache as the Matheson name," Cann said. "He just has a better shot and succeeding and he has people around the state who have voted for him before."
Follow Michelle Price at http://twitter.com/michellelprice . Associated Press writer Brady McCombs contributed to this report.