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Jim Matheson, lone Utah Democrat in Congress, calls it quits

Rep. Jim Matheson, the only Democrat in Utah's six-member congressional delegation, said Tuesday he won't seek an eighth term next year — giving Republicans an excellent opportunity to finally capture the GOP-leaning district.

"When I launched my first campaign in 1999, I knew that the arc of my public service would have many chapters," Matheson said. "It has been a tremendous privilege to serve the people of Utah during my time in the U.S. House of Representatives, but my time in the House should not be the sum total of my service."

Matheson didn't give a reason for his decision. But with Republicans dominating the state in recent elections, coupled with President Obama's unpopularity in Utah, he faced a tough challenge to keep his seat.

The conservative Democrat last year beat his Republican challenger mia love by less than 1 percentage point. GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney won Matheson's Republican-leaning Salt Lake City-area district by more than 30 percentage points in the 2012 election, and John McCain beat Obama by 15 points in 2008.

The Republican Party quickly weighed in on Matheson's retirement, suggesting Obama's beleaguered health care law has made it impossible for any Democrat to win the conservative district.

"This is a warning signal to Democrats coast to coast," said Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon, the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, the fundraising and recruiting arm of House Republicans. "Not only will this announcement allow Republicans to focus our energy and resources on defeating other vulnerable Democrats, but it also proves that Obamacare has become a total nightmare for any Democrat running in 2014."

Walden added that even though Matheson voted against Obamacare in 2010, he "knows he can’t run and win in this climate."

But House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called the retiring lawmaker a "strong and independent voice in Congress" and a "tenacious advocate" for his constituents.

"He is a champion of fiscal responsibility who appreciates the importance of investing in our nation’s infrastructure," she said. "We are fortunate to have such a committed and experienced legislator in our caucus, and are sorry to see him go."

At least one Republican, fellow Utah lawmaker Sen. Orrin Hatch, had kind words for Matheson on Tuesday, saying he has been "proud" to serve in Congress with the Democrat.

"During my 37 years in the U.S. Congress, I’d be hard-pressed to name someone who I’ve enjoyed serving alongside of more than Jim Matheson," Hatch said. "While we didn’t agree on everything, you always knew that Jim was doing what he sincerely felt was best for our state."

Love, the 38-year-old mayor of Saratoga Springs who announced a rematch with Matheson shortly after her loss 13 months ago, posted on her Facebook page Tuesday that the lawmaker has "served our state with passion and has been a dedicated public servant during his tenure in Congress."

She added his retirement "does not change my campaign to represent the people of Utah's 4th Congressional District."

Matheson, 53, a member of the Blue Dog Coalition, a group of conservative Democrats whose membership rolls have dwindled in recent elections, was first elected to Congress in 2000. He is a member of House Energy and Commerce Committee.

The Utahn was the second longtime House member to announce retirement Tuesday after Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., said he would not seek re-election in 2014.