By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 5, 2008
Chris Matthews has always admitted that his life dream was to be a senator. But now that the MSNBC host is actively exploring a run in his native Pennsylvania, he has created a thorny dilemma for his network.
By ratcheting up his efforts -- Matthews is considering buying a house in the state -- the onetime Democratic operative has created an awkward situation for MSNBC, where his $5 million-a-year contract expires in June. While some analysts say his electronic trail of controversial sound bites could hamper a 2010 campaign, a Rasmussen poll released yesterday has Matthews trailing the Republican incumbent, Sen. Arlen Specter, by 46 percent to 43 percent. Earlier polls showed Matthews with a double-digit deficit.
Matthews, 62, declined to be interviewed. "We're not going to comment on a speculative story," said MSNBC spokesman Jeremy Gaines.
But Matthews is taking the matter seriously. He met with state Democratic officials last week and has twice consulted former representative Joe Hoeffel, who lost to Specter in 2004. "I believe he would be a strong candidate," Hoeffel said. "He's clearly interested. I told him celebrity is really a two-edged sword. It gives him great entree, but it's hard for a national celebrity to come back to their home state. There might be some resentment."
Matthews, who has a daughter at the University of Pennsylvania, has been a Chevy Chase resident for two decades.
While MSNBC executives take Matthews's soundings seriously, they have not ruled out the possibility that the "Hardball" host is trying to gain leverage in upcoming contract talks, which are expected to start soon. Matthews expects to be offered a deal with a significant pay cut. Politico reported yesterday that Matthews has asked some of his advisers whether he should leave MSNBC before his contract expires. Further exploratory efforts would put Matthews in the difficult position of, for instance, interviewing Republican senators while angling to join their ranks as a Democrat.
Television analyst Andrew Tyndall says there is no need for Matthews to step down now. "He's free to put out feelers and then decide not to do it," Tyndall said. "Because of his style of interviewing -- highly subjective, first-person, opinionated, always injecting his views -- I don't think it impacts his journalism."
But if the situation drags on, Tyndall says, MSNBC staffers are "going to have a really hard time because they've been identified as cheerleading for the Democratic side."
Specter, 78, told CNN on Sunday that he expects a close race no matter who runs: "I long ago adopted the philosophy of Satchel Paige, the old pitcher, and that is I never look over my shoulder, never look behind. Somebody may be gaining on me."
Pennsylvania's Democratic governor, Ed Rendell, hasn't exactly talked up Matthews's chances. "Nobody beats Arlen Specter, except in a Republican primary. And I told Chris that," Rendell said on MSNBC in October.
Matthews, a Philadelphia native, ran for a House seat from that city in 1974. He was a speechwriter in Jimmy Carter's White House and served several years as a top aide to Tip O'Neill, then the House speaker, helping to shape the Democratic message.
He became a San Francisco Examiner columnist in 1987.
His wife, Kathleen, a former anchor at Washington's WJLA-TV, told the Harrisburg Patriot-News in July that her husband "loves politics, and I think the idea of being a U.S. senator is one of the most romantic things he can think about, so he's got to make a tough decision."
Some women's groups assailed Matthews in January for what they called a history of sexist remarks about women. He apologized for saying that the reason Hillary Clinton was a senator and a presidential candidate "is her husband messed around."
Matthews openly boosted Barack Obama's candidacy, saying he felt "this thrill going up my leg" when the Illinois senator spoke. Days after the election he sounded more like a Democrat than a journalist, telling viewers that "I want to do everything I can to make this thing work, this new presidency work."
Saul Shorr, a Democratic consultant in Pennsylvania, says Matthews would likely be "a pretty appealing candidate, a Northeast Philadelphia guy made good. It's a question of whether he'll be disciplined enough" after a career in cable news.
But former Democratic strategist David Sirota wrote in the Huffington Post yesterday that he hopes Matthews is "humiliatingly obliterated in a Democratic primary," adding: "The sense of entitlement that this blowhard personifies is truly stunning."