The Salt Lake City-based Dan Jones & Associates public opinion research firm conducted a poll for the Deseret News and found Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) spiraling down toward dead heat status in his bid for a seventh term. Not only is he locked into a close race for the Republican nomination, but it also appears he could have a surprisingly tough 2012 general election battle should Rep. Jim Matheson (D-UT-2) decide to run.
Only 406 registered voters were questioned during the June 13-16 period, a relatively small sample for a state having a population equal to the size of four congressional districts, and even more minute when considering the aggregate response factor for the GOP primary ballot test. Though the number of self-identified Republicans was not released, it is probable that the total was well below 250 people. The small universe adds to the error factor ratio and generally makes the results less reliable.
On the other hand, Jones & Associates has a great deal of experience conducting polls of Utah voters and residents and has even been a research vendor to past Hatch for Senate campaigns. The local knowledge certainly improves the nebulous reliability factor.
The tabulations show most voters think the 77-year old Hatch has been in office too long, not surprising for a politician serving his 35th year in the Senate, particularly when a respondent pool is queried long before Election Day. By a margin of 59-38 percent, the sample stated that it preferred “someone new” to having a senator with Hatch’s long seniority. Only 18 percent answered that they are “definitely” committed to Sen. Hatch, whereas 37 percent “definitely” want a new person.
But the surprise of the poll is not the Senator’s vulnerability but how well Rep. Matheson does statewide. Utah, one of the most reliable of Republican states, hasn’t elected a Democratic senator since 1970 or a governor since Matheson’s father, Scott Matheson, left office after the 1984 election. In a ballot test for the upcoming general election, Hatch only scores a 47-47 percent tie against the six-term Democratic congressman but has a slight lead among those “definitely” voting for their candidate of choice, 32-28%.
Hatch also, for the first time in a statewide poll, shows weakness in a Republican primary. While there is no doubt the Senator has problems at the state Republican convention, like his former seat mate Bob Bennett did in 2010 (he failed to qualify for the primary ballot), previous primary polls showed Hatch to be in strong position against his most likely GOP opponent, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT-3). The congressman says he is seriously considering a run against the veteran Senator, but has not yet committed to the race. According to the Dan Jones poll, Mr. Hatch would command only a 47-44% lead over Rep. Chaffetz among those respondents classifying themselves as likely Republican primary voters. Looking only at those saying their decision is definite, Hatch posts a 28-23% margin.
Polls like the one discussed as the subject of this column increase the speculation talk and likelihood that both Chaffetz and Matheson will run statewide. For the Republican nomination fight, Congressman Chaffetz will have an edge at the state convention, but Senator Hatch is working diligently to fill his own slate of delegates. If either candidate receives 60% of the convention vote, such person is nominated outright making Utah one of the few states that can still nominate candidates via party assembly. If no one receives 60%, then the top two candidates face each other in a straight primary election. It was always viewed that Hatch would have a decided advantage in an electoral contest against Chaffetz because he will have a substantial fundraising edge. This latest poll suggests that the Senators best political asset may be less of a factor than originally believed.
The results are also a double-edged sword for Matheson. While his statewide numbers appear strong, thus giving him more reason to run for the Senate or for governor (more likely the Senate if Chaffetz runs because the eventual GOP nominee will have a divided political base) his House re-election chances probably diminish. With him overtly toying with a statewide race, Republican map drawers have greater reason to make his 2nd district even more favorable to a GOP candidate, thus trying for a straight 4-0 delegation sweep and “encouraging” Matheson to seek election elsewhere.
It appears that Utah could now become a political hotbed all the way through the general election. Though the Utah Senate race would normally earn a “Safe Republican” rating in a general election contest at this point during an average election cycle, right now it appears that “Lean Republican” is the more accurate appraisal.
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