David Rodeback's Blog

Local Politics and Culture, National Politics,
Life Among the Mormons, and Other Stuff

Normal Version

Tuesday, March 16, 2010
Republican Candidates in Utah's Second Congressional District

Here's my initial take on Neil Walter and Morgan Philpot, who are vying for the Republican nomination to oppose incumbent Democrat Jim Matheson. At the end, there's a stellar quotation from Daniel Webster, which by itself is worth the price of admission (your reading time, I mean).

Two weeks ago, I devoted some time to getting acquainted with the two Republicans who hope to challenge Congressman Jim Matheson, a Democrat, in Utah's Second Congressional District. I studied both candidates' Web sites in advance of attending some meetings they were holding. Unfortunately, circumstances conspired to make me quite late to candidate Neil Walter's meeting at the American Fork Library; I was only there for the last 15 minutes or so. I was able to stay longer at a Morgan Philpot meeting in a Highland home later in the week.

I won't pretend to have finished my examination of these candidates, but I've seen enough so far to form some initial impressions. My thoughts are more tentative where Walter is concerned, because I couldn't attend the entire meeting, but 15 minutes in person and some reading are a decent beginning.

The Candidates

Neil Walter (the link is to his campaign Web site, but you can also follow him on Facebook) apparently lives in Santa Clara, near St. George, and has roots in that area. He has an undergraduate degree in Finance from BYU and an MBA from Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, an excellent school. He worked in Houston for ConocoPhillips, so he has some experience in the energy industry, which is particularly important in Utah. I'm not one of those people (mostly Democrats) who believe that actual experience in an industry disqualifies a person from making policy related to that industry, so I rate this experience as a positive thing for a candidate. He now works as a commercial real estate agent, which is a much different animal from a conventional real estate agent, and he does some teaching at Dixie College.

Here are my impressions so far.

He seems intelligent. Significantly, he has raised none of the barking moonbat red flags that some conservative candidates raise for me, often as soon as they open their mouths. So I think him to be a reasonable person, not a wing nut. Reading his Web site, I was rather unimpressed; he seemed to espouse sound principles, where government and economics are concerned, but not to be reasoning through them all the way to actual, specific things that could and should be done in Congress. However, I was more impressed in this respect by listening to him in person.

When one person at the meeting tried to pin him down on a flat tax, he said he could support such a thing, but that it's hard to defend against buying votes. I haven't yet had a chance to ask him what he means by that; so far, I don't grasp it.

Asked how he could possibly beat Jim Matheson, he answered insightfully, I thought. He explained that Matheson picks up a lot of votes in southern Utah because of his overt stances on energy. Walter thinks that his own background in energy, plus the fact that he really is from southern Utah, will swing a lot of votes to him and away from Matheson. In general, he thinks that a Republican who pays serious attention to southern Utah's issues will be more appealing than a Democrat who does.

There were only a few people -- considerably less than ten -- at the one-hour meeting when I arrived, 45 minutes late. If this is a fluke, it's no big deal. If it's part of a pattern, it suggests either that he is unable to generate much popular appeal or enthusiasm, or that his campaign is not sufficiently energetic and organized to give him a chance to generate such appeal. The fact that his Web site -- which I admit looks more professional than those of some Senate candidates -- left me less impressed than did listening to him in person also suggested an inadequacy, not in the candidate himself but in his campaign's presentation of him.

Walter says that his background in finance, combined with his conservative principles, including his commitment to the US Constitution, will serve the people well in Washington. There are debts, deficits, and other fiscal issues to be faced.

If the seat were open -- if there were no Democratic incumbent -- and if Walter became the Republican nominee, I think he might have a chance, if he could ratchet up his campaign a few notches. He might even have a slim chance against incumbent Jim Matheson, if enough voters are sufficiently angry with Democrats in general. And I think he's probably as good a candidate as those the Republicans have put up against Matheson in the last few elections -- all of whom lost, as you may recall.

I'll keep watching, reading, and listening, to see if my initial impressions are badly wrong. If they are -- that is, if I am badly underestimating him -- perhaps I'll change my mind down the road. In the meantime, I think he may be an excellent potential candidate for the future. I'd like to see him get elected to the state legislature and work there for a while, before I get excited about his prospects for taking down a well-established Democratic incumbent in the US House of Representatives.

Morgan Philpot (one l, one t, and here he is on Facebook) impresses me, even excites me a little, though I walked in the door with at least my usual skepticism. You may think that I am judging Neil Walter with undue harshness, comparatively, because I spent only fifteen minutes with Walter (not counting reading time), as opposed to more than an hour with Philpot. You might be right in some measure. However, if we equalize things by confining my judgment of Philpot to a fifteen-minute period and ignoring the rest of the time, any such period I pick has Philpot impressing me more than Walter.

Philpot represented Sandy in the Utah Legislature for most of two terms. He has a degree in Anthropology and Environmental Studies from the University of Utah, and he interned for the White House Council on Environmental Quality under the Clinton administration, which he says helped galvanize (my term) his conservativism. He has a law degree from the Ave Maria School of Law, a Catholic institution which appears to be of good reputation and of a conservative bent, and which (apropos of nothing) recently moved from Michigan to Florida, apparently sometime after he graduated. He clerked for Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff after law school, was in-house counsel for a Utah company for a while, and now is part of a consulting firm. He lives in American Fork, which is interesting to me but not a factor in my judgments.

One of the first things I noticed at the meeting I attended was more energy -- in addition to more people in attendance (by a factor of three) and more of a campaign organization, in comparison to Neil Walter's meeting. Similarly, in examining his campaign Web site, I found more of a connection from conservative principles, through present issues, to actual policy proposals which respond to those issues.

Philpot didn't send up any of those barking moonbat red flags I mentioned, either. I was quite satisfied with his brand of conservativism and his application of the Constitution to present issues.

Where policy is concerned, he identifies stopping deficit spending as a high priority, which has to happen before we can address the debt, which deficit spending increases. He spoke with some passion and sufficient detail of the need to roll back federal ownership and regulation of land, especially in western states, notably including Utah. He connected using natural resources on what is now federal land in Utah to a solid economic recovery and to a firm economic base in the future. With respect to land and in other ways, including education policy, he wants to focus on diminishing federal power -- ultimately back within the bounds of the Constitution's enumerated federal powers.

He spoke intelligently, I thought, of problems within the national and state Republican parties. I suppose that is a topic for another day, but I was very glad to hear it. He served as Vice Chair of the Utah Republican Party, which is like Vice President, not what you may be thinking after reading lately about the vices of some Republican leaders in Utah.

He shied away from statutory term limits, as do I. He decried the excessive connections between federal and local governments, which often bypass the states. He expressed concern that, if there were a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, Washington would simply find a way around it, as it does with much of the rest of the Constitution. Asked about earmarks, he noted that Congressman Jason Chaffetz is changing his views on the subject, which used to be, no earmarks ever. Philpot didn't suggest that earmarks should be done away with altogether, but that each earmark should be considered in committee hearings, and earmarks should only be allowed in areas in which the federal government has constitutional authority. Frankly, that's about the smartest position I've heard on the subject.

He has some fun things to say about Jim Matheson:

  • He's "one of the biggest fence-sitters in the nation" -- this he contrasted with George Washington's statement, "Let us raise a standard to which the wise and honest can repair."
  • Of Matheson's voting record, he said, "It's here. It's there. It's everywhere. . . . Dr. Seuss could write a book about it."
  • "He has a ten-year record of waffling, sitting on the fence, and betraying his own people."

I suggest these not as profound insights, but as evidence that Philpot seems ready for the fray and can turn a phrase.

I asked him to hypothesize. If he arrives at Congress in January with a small majority (of Republicans, but not conservatives) in both houses, but a Democrat in the White House, what can he accomplish, and how will he go about it? He said he'll be vocal. He said it's important to unite the Utah delegation in the effort. He said he'll vote no a lot, including on legislation considered essential, which picks up a lot of unrelated pork and other garbage, because everyone assumes it has to pass.

He also said we need to embrace incrementalism. He said that "we constitutionalists sometimes want to throw ourselves under the train," if total victory isn't handed to us, but we need to make the progress we can make at any given point. I didn't stand up and cheer that point, but I could have.

In short, I am satisfied with his answer to my question.

Someone else asked how he can beat Jim Matheson. He said that polling shows that Matheson loses 67 percent of his support among Utah voters, when they are told that he voted for the stimulus package last year and also for what conservatives are pleased to call "the death tax." So he'll be sure to tell them. Moreover, he expects the national Republican Party to declare Utah's Second District a must-win seat and help with a great deal of funding. He also noted that things like "Gavelgate," -- the story which had just broken of President Obama naming Matheson's brother to the federal bench at the same time he's trying to sway Matheson's own vote on health care -- don't help, and they make Matheson look like he's part of the corrupt machine in Washington.

Philpot said that he doesn't believe Matheson was conspiring to buy a judgeship for his brother with his health care vote. I don't either. I do suspect President Obama of trying to buy a health care vote with a federal judgeship; Philpot didn't say he thinks that, but he didn't say he doesn't, either. He said he has also heard Gavelgate called "the Utah Brother-Love Conspiracy." (Yes, I'm cringing. We won't talk about why. Do we need to?)

Asked about immigration, Philpot didn't go all stupid and talk about building our own little Berlin Wall, complete with barbed wire, guard towers, and machine guns. He said we have to change the incentives, in part by holding employers accountable for whom they hire, and in part by reforming the legal immigration system, which I myself have seen to be seriously dysfunctional. And some people we'll simply have to deport -- starting with criminals.

I asked how he would approach the necessity of entitlement reform, when there really is an entitlement, at least where all the money we've all paid into Social Security is concerned. He noted that that's a problem, but the reform has to happen anyway. He offered this insight: The people who are drawing the benefits now are, for the most part, the people who elected the people who broke the system. He thinks we need to dial it back gradually . . .

One lady of considerable years said she'd happily forego her Social Security and Medicare benefits, which are looming, if she could invest the same money on her own. I'm not sure she was the same person who said this a couple of nights earlier at the Neil Walter meeting, but she may have been.

He accused the Democrats in Washington of trying to destroy our economy, because their vision of what America should be is such that they hate what America is, has been, and has stood for. To my mind, as radicalized as Democratic leadership has become, this is a hard case to refute.

Given the issues that were discussed and the detail and apparent candor with which Philpot discussed them, he had many opportunities to step in things that wouldn't come off his shoes easily, or, in other words, to throw up those red flags I mentioned. He didn't dodge issues, but he didn't step in anything, either.

Early in the meeting -- after ten or fifteen minutes -- I was forming the hypothesis that Philpot is the strongest potential opponent for Jim Matheson that we've seen in years. (Perhaps I'm damning by faint praise.) I spent the rest of the meeting testing that hypothesis. It remains intact. We'll see how the campaign goes -- it's just beginning -- but right now, my vote is Morgan Philpot's to lose, and I think the Republicans have a fighting chance in the Second Congressional District. This assumes that Philpot survives the State Republican Convention, of course.

I still think Neil Walter is one of the good guys, with some potential for the future. But right now, Walter and Philpot are in different leagues.

Daniel Webster Nails It

A final thought: in speaking of the love of big government that prevails in Washington, Philpot briefly quoted Daniel Webster. The following longer passage includes what Philpot quoted; I include the longer passage because the whole thing and its context are insightful. Webster spoke specifically of the executive branch, but we might want in our time to include the legislative branch, and possibly even the judiciary:

I believe there is serious cause of alarm. . . . I believe the power of the executive has increased, is increasing, and ought now to be brought back within its ancient constitutional limits. I have nothing to do with the motives which have led to those acts, which I believe to have transcended the boundaries of the Constitution. Good motives may always be assumed, as bad motives may always be imputed. Good intentions will always be pleaded for every assumption of power; but they cannot justify it, even if we were sure that they existed. It is hardly too strong to say, that the Constitution was made to guard the people against the dangers of good intention, real or pretended. When bad intentions are boldly avowed, the people will promptly take care of themselves. On the other hand, they will always be asked why they should resist or question that exercise of power which is so fair in its object, so plausible and patriotic in appearance, and which has the public good alone confessedly in view? Human beings, we may be assured, will generally exercise power when they can get it; and they will exercise it most undoubtedly, in popular governments, under pretences of public safety or high public interest. It may be very possible that good intentions do really sometimes exist when constitutional restraints are disregarded. There are men, in all ages, who mean to exercise power usefully; but who mean to exercise it. They mean to govern well; but they mean to govern. They promise to be kind masters; but they mean to be masters. They think there need be but little restraint upon themselves. Their notion of the public interest is apt to be quite closely connected with their own exercise of authority. They may not, indeed, always understand their own motives. The love of power may sink too deep in their own hearts even for their own scrutiny, and may pass with themselves for mere patriotism and benevolence. (From a speech in New York, March 15, 1837, citation here)

Hmm. I think I'm going to have to spread this one around.


I'd be interested in your views of the candidates, and I'm certainly not to shy to ask them some questions you suggest, if you care to suggest some.

Mark Steele comments (3/18/2010):

David, what are your thoughts on Matheson?

The part of the Webster quote I like the best was, "The Constitution was made to guard the people against the dangers of good intention."

Thanks for the info.

David Rodeback comments (3/19/2010):

Jim Matheson is a smart campaigner and obviously has pretty good instincts, where his votes, positions, and desires for reelection are concerned. But there are too many strikes against him in my mind for me to consider voting for him. He's part of a very dangerous Democrat majority in the House, even if he's relatively tame himself. He didn't vote for cap-and-trade, which is good, but he wants some sort of legislation on the subject, he says. Likewise, health care -- and this is assuming he votes nay on Sunday. He makes a big deal about energy, but I find his opposition to nuclear waste storage in Utah more convenient than enlightened; nuclear power is a big part of our long-term solution to our energy challenges, and this is just one more way to stand in the way. (Suggested reading: a William Tucker speech.) All in all, I'd like to put someone in that seat who will push back against the growing tyranny, not more or less quietly go along for the ride.

Mark Walter comments (4/8/2010):

Morgan Philpot has lived in Utah for a time. He is not a native of Utah. It would be great if your information was correct and fair. You should spend a little more time checking out Neil Walter’s qualifications and why he is running for congress in the 2nd congressional district. Neil is a native of Utah. His forefathers were among the first settlers of Utah!

David Rodeback comments (4/8/2010):

Thanks for the correction; I have adjusted the text above. My next opportunity to get acquainted with Walter is tonight at a meeting in Highland. I will be there, and I will blog about it as time permits.

Normal Version