While U.S. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, may find himself not that well liked among all Utahns, he’s perfectly safe inside his own Utah Republican Party.
As the 2014 elections rush to their November conclusion, eyes are turning to the 2016 possible match-ups.
And the big questions are who, if anyone, will challenge freshman Sen. Lee or seven-year incumbent GOP Gov. Gary Herbert?
A new poll for UtahPolicy.com, conducted by Dan Jones & Associates, finds that while Lee’s popularity has rebounded some from a year ago – when he led the much-disliked federal government shutdown – Lee still has a number of problems.
Jones found that among all Utahns, 54 percent approve of the job the Tea Party favorite is doing in the U.S. Senate, while 35 percent disapprove.
By Utah standards – we tend to like our politicians in this state – Lee’s numbers are not good.
But when you break-out Jones’ findings according to partisanship, Lee does just fine among his own Republican Party – by far the majority party in Utah.
Jones finds that 74 percent of Utahns who said they are Republicans have a favorable opinion of Lee, only 14 percent of Republicans disapprove of Lee’s job performance.
The worm turns sharply when Democrats and political independents are broken out: Only 11 percent of Democrats approve of Lee, 80 percent don’t like what he’s doing in Congress.
Independents are only slightly better for Lee, 39 percent approve of his job performance, 52 percent disapprove, Jones found.
Of course, Lee really doesn’t need Democrats to win re-election in 2016.
He may not even need many independent votes – although certainly he’d welcome them.
No Democrat has won a U.S. Senate race in Utah since 1970 – which will be 46 years come 2016. No Democrat has even come close.
Lee’s challenge, if it comes, will be within his own Republican Party.
And a year ago things didn’t look that good for Lee. But he’s toned down his rhetoric since then. He’s gotten on his “slightly-less-archconservative” horse.
And he’s been holding electronic town hall meetings, making more appearances in the state since the government shutdown.
Assuming Utah legislators don’t make major changes to a new direct-to-the-primary-ballot law over the next two general sessions, a more moderate Republican’s challenge to Lee will be much easier in 2016.
That’s because for the first time a GOP challenger can gather around 28,000 voter signatures in a state-wide race and go directly to an open Republican primary.
No longer will there be the risk of a moderate being knocked out in the state Republican Convention.
Former Sen. Bob Bennett was no moderate. But he wasn’t as archconservative as Lee and Tim Bridgewater; and Bennett was kicked out of office by several thousand Tea Party-like delegates in the 2010 state GOP Convention.
A moderate Republican running to Lee’s political left – and there’s a lot of space to his left – who had the means to gather the 28,000 voter signatures could be real trouble for Lee come an open primary vote.
Registered Democrats – and there’s not many of those in Utah these days – wouldn’t be able to vote in the 2016 state GOP primary.
But political independents could (as, of course, would registered Republicans).
And suddenly Lee could be facing a real intra-party challenge.
But if Lee’s job approval ratings keep improving, his re-election will only look more likely.
And, as the new poll shows, nearly three-fourths of Republicans already like what he’s doing in the U.S. Senate – a healthy showing.
While Herbert’s job approval ratings are good by Utah standards, they are not great.
There were times when GOP governors Jon Huntsman Jr. and Mike Leavitt had job approval ratings in the 80s.
Herbert, who inherited the job from Huntsman before winning his own re-elections in 2010 and 2012, has never been that high.
But a recent national newspaper story found that Herbert was, at that time, the most popular governor in the nation. Nothing bad there.
And Jones finds that 86 percent of Utah Republicans like the job Herbert is doing as governor; while only 7 percent of his own party gave him unfavorable ratings.
Hey, even 62 percent of political independents like the job Herbert is doing; Democrats give him only a 30 percent favorable rating.
No Democrat has won the governorship since 1980. And if Herbert has an 86 percent approval rating from Republicans come 2016, he will be very hard to beat by another Republican.
Meanwhile, Attorney General Sean Reyes, who was appointed in December after disgraced AG John Swallow resigned, is doing OK. But many Utahns still don’t know enough about Reyes to have an opinion of him.
Reyes does have a Democratic opponent this year – and two minor party candidates, as well. Democrat Charles Stormont actually works for Reyes in the AG’s office.
Reyes has a 53 percent favorable approval rating overall, found Jones. But 28 percent of those polled don’t have an opinion of the job he’s doing.
Reyes has strongly defended Utah’s same-sex marriage ban law – ruled unconstitutional in two federal court decisions.
And Reyes could be in the middle of a U.S. Supreme Court appeal on same-sex in 2015.
Still, 62 percent of Republicans approve of the job Reyes is doing; independents approve of his job performance 49-25 percent.
Finally, not surprisingly, by far most Utahns hate what the U.S Congress is doing. Jones found that 81 percent disapprove of Congress’s actions – or inactions, as the case may be.
Utah lawmakers – who often get criticized in the media – are doing just fine, thank you.
Jones finds that 59 percent of all Utahns approve of the job the Legislature is doing, a very high rating for an amorphous body like the Legislature.
The Utah Legislature, both House and Senate, has been controlled by Republicans since the late 1970s.
Seventy-four percent of Republicans like the job the Legislature is doing; Democrats disagree, giving the Legislature a 26-71 job approve/disapprove rating.
Half of political independents say the Legislature is doing a good job, while 47 percent give lawmakers an unfavorable rating.