SALT LAKE CITY -- Utah Democrats must quickly find a candidate to replace U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson after his surprising announcement that he won't seek re-election next year.
No leading contenders had emerged Wednesday, but political experts say the state's minority party faces a difficult challenge ahead in likely Republican nominee Mia Love.
Love, the mayor of Saratoga Springs, has lots of campaign cash, political experience and name recognition after she nearly became the first black woman to represent the Republican Party in Congress last year.
To defeat her, Democrats will need more than a dynamite, well-known candidate of their own, experts predict. They also will need a strong Republican to challenge Love in the GOP primary so that she enters the general election politically bruised.
"That's an alignment of stars that only happens every once in a while," said Quin Monson, director of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University.
Matheson, a Democrat who represents Utah's 4th Congressional District, has held office for seven terms in a state where Republicans dominate. He announced his upcoming departure Tuesday, saying it was time to move on and that he never "saw himself as a 'lifer' in the House of Representatives."
Utah Democratic Chair Jim Dabakis said the move positions Love as the likely favorite. But he said he is confident that his party will find a moderate candidate to win the seat.
They don't have much time. The filing deadline is March 20. And Love has a head-start with $672,000 in her campaign fund.
The 4th District, which covers a string of Salt Lake City suburbs stretching south along the Wasatch Front to Sanpete County, is largely Republican. There are about 125,000 registered Republicans and about 32,000 registered Democrats, while another 135,000 voters are unaffiliated.
In 2012, Mitt Romney carried Matheson's district with 68 percent of the vote, while President Barack Obama collected 30 percent, according to the 2014 Almanac of American Politics.
But about a third of the district voters who supported Romney also crossed party lines last year to vote for Matheson or Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, also a Democrat, said Matt Lyon, the Utah Democratic Party's executive director.
Monson, the BYU pollster, said now that Matheson isn't running again, it could change the dynamic on the Republican side. He said it's possible a few additional GOP candidates will jump into the race now that the challenge won't require ousting a sitting congressman.
James Evans, the chairman of the Utah Republican Party, said no additional candidates had jumped in by Wednesday afternoon, but he too expected more Republicans were looking at running.
For her part, Love said Matheson's announcement and the possibility of more Republican competition won't change her campaign.
"I'm still going to run an election that gets out to as many people as possible," she said. "My job is to reach as many voters as possible."
In an interview Wednesday, Matheson brushed aside speculation that he declined to run again because he was afraid of losing in an expected rematch with Love, saying his polling numbers showed he was in "excellent position to win."
He said he has no plans right now to run for Utah governor or U.S. Senate in 2016, both races that political experts said they expect he'll consider.
"I'm not taking anything off the table, but I've got a year to sort this out and figure out what I'm going to do next," Matheson said.
Kirk Jowers, director of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics, said Matheson would very much be a viable candidate for U.S. Senate or Utah governor in the future.
Matheson is well-known around the state thanks to his time in office and his father's time as governor and he enjoys high approval ratings, said Jowers, who is also an adviser to Republican Gov. Gary Herbert.
"My guess," Jowers said, "Is that the heart will only grow fonder for him while he's away."