Bob Bernick’s Notebook: Huntsman vs. Hatch Could be a Tough Political Fight in 2018

Bob BernickUtahns could be in for a fascinating political year.

No, not in 2017; but in 2018.

And recent polling for UtahPolicy by Dan Jones & Associates shows exactly why.

In a survey conducted last month, Jones finds that long-time U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch has a 46-47 percent favorability rating among his constituents. That is, 46 percent of Utahns like Hatch, 47 percent don’t have a favorable opinion of him.

On the other side of the spectrum, former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. has a 64-30 percent favorability ranking. Sixty-four prevent of Utahns like Huntsman, 30 percent don’t.

There is a real possibility that Hatch and Huntsman could face each other in the 2018 Senate race.

Hatch says he is seriously considering running for an 8th term.

Huntsman has moved back to Utah from Washington, D.C., and says he also is seriously considering running for the Senate next year.

Both men are Republicans, but Hatch is more closely tied to his party than is Huntsman, who is co-chairman of the bipartisan No Labels make-government-work movement.

Of course, Hatch could decide to retire. He promised to do so when he ran for his 7th term in 2012, only now to say there are various reasons why he needs to run again.

And Huntsman could decide not to run in 2018, although if he is serious about a U.S. Senate attempt that would be the year to do it.

There’s speculation that Huntsman – following the example of No Labels – could run as an independent. There’s no doubt if he did, he would promise to caucus with Senate Republicans and add his voice to that party, now in the Senate majority.

Running as an independent would keep Huntsman out of the Utah GOP nominating process.

And, as the latest Jones’ polling shows, that could very well be a smart move on Huntsman’s part.

WHAT THE NUMBERS SHOW

Huntsman has no advantage within the Utah GOP:

  • Among Utah Republicans, 63 percent have a favorable opinion of Huntsman, who won two gubernatorial elections – 2004 and 2008 – but left in early 2009 to be Democratic President Barack Obama’s ambassador to China.
  • Hatch has a 65 percent approval rating among Utah Republicans.
  • 31 percent of Republicans don’t like Hatch, 28 percent don’t like Huntsman. So both are about even there at this early point.

Both men don’t have good “favorable/unfavorable” ratings from their own party members.

For example, U.S. Sen. Mike Lee has a 72-16 favorable rating among Republicans, Jones’ recent survey shows.

But Huntsman would have a significant advantage outside of Utah’s major political party.

  • Among Utah political independents (folks who don’t belong to any party), Huntsman’s favorable rating is 67-19 percent.
  • Hatch, on the other hand, has only a 36-54 percent rating; or 36 percent of independents favor Hatch, 54 percent don’t like him.

One would not expect Hatch, a GOP senator for 40 years, to do well among Democrats. And he doesn’t.

Hatch’s rating among Democrats is 15-77 percent.

However, Huntsman’s Democratic rating is 70-19 percent.

Now, Utah Democrats will likely have their own party nominee for the Senate in 2018. But with a 70 percent approval rating among Democrats, it could well be that an independent Huntsman would draw a considerable number of Democratic votes – as they would rather see him representing Utah in the Senate, even if he caucuses with the Republicans – than to have Hatch.

So, the latest favorable numbers show a wash for Hatch and Huntsman among Republicans, with Huntsman doing much better among independents and Democrats.

Of course, if it came down to a GOP Hatch against an independent Huntsman, the campaigning could certainly change those numbers.

THE GOOD AND THE BAD

Both men have politics and personal traits that could help or harm them if they faced each other in 2018.

For Hatch, a detriment is his age – he is 82 now, would be 84 in the campaign and 90 if he won and served out his 8th term.

Also, Hatch promised not to run again in his 2012 campaign. Some Utahns may hold that against him.

In part, that is one reason why today – 18 months from a possible GOP Senate primary – we see a number of newspaper op-eds by various folks saying Hatch is smart, dedicated, effective, and needed in the U.S. Senate far beyond 2017.

Clearly, Hatch and his supporters are laying the groundwork for Hatch to run again.

Watch for even more of this – and for Trump administrative types (maybe not Trump himself, for he is not well-liked in Utah) to lay on the pro-Hatch stuff with a thick trowel in the months ahead.

Hatch also has problems with his party’s right wing. Those who told Jones they are “very conservative” favor Lee 85-8 percent.

But the “very conservatives” like Hatch only by a 54-44 percent margin. Thus, many of the GOP archconservatives aren’t in Hatch’s corner now.

However, like Republicans in general, Huntsman doesn’t better Hatch among the right wing, either. They like Huntsman only by a 51-41 percent margin.

But, again, Huntsman doesn’t need, nor likely expect, the right-wing to be with him. He has some GOP moderates, many political independents, and Democrats.

If it comes down to a Hatch/Huntsman general election, can Hatch draw out the right wing vote, or will they skip that off-year ballot box?

But Huntsman has his problems, too.

First off, many Utahns don’t like Obama. And Huntsman resigned his governorship to become an ambassador in the Obama administration.

Will moderate/conservative Republicans forgive him for that?

And many Utahns may not remember, but BEFORE the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage, Huntsman came out in favor of it.

And it’s fair to say that for a Republican, Huntsman has been a supporter of the gay rights movement.

Leaders of the LDS Church have opposed gay marriage for some time. They still do. And Mormons by a large majority oppose same-sex unions. It is more than a sore point; it’s a fighting point among some Mormons.

Now, Huntsman has strong LDS ties: He is, himself, a Mormon. His grandfather (his mother’s father) was the late-Elder David Haight, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, the governing body of the LDS Church. The Twelve are much loved and respected by Mormons, especially Utah Mormons.

At this point, Hatch, also a faithful Mormon, doesn’t have a lead among “very active” Mormons over Huntsman – perhaps Huntsman’s support of so-called gay rights counterbalancing his heritage.

Hatch is favored by “very active” Mormons, 63-33 percent. For Huntsman, it is 64-28 percent.

Could Hatch or his surrogates turn the Mormon vote against Huntsman over his gay rights stands?

The Huntsman name is respected in Utah, with Jon Huntsman Sr. the driving force behind cancer research at the hospital/research facility carrying his name at the University of Utah.

And Huntsman’s brother, Paul, last year bought The Salt Lake Tribune, the state’s largest daily newspaper, which in recent years began endorsing political candidates.

So Huntsman may well have name/press power beyond Hatch.

However, Hatch would bring some big-name endorsements to his cause – perhaps even Mitt Romney.

And if Huntsman runs as an independent – even if he promises to caucus with Republicans – it’s likely the GOP establishment and most Republican Utah officeholders would be against him.

Some may say that it’s too early even to be talking about the 2018 elections.

But you can also see – with Huntsman’s return to Utah and Hatch’s advocates writing op-ed pieces – that 18 months away from a GOP primary election those with eyes toward the next Utah Senate race are beginning to make their moves.

And early “favorable” ratings show what could be a very interesting race pending.