If Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch decides to run for another term in 2018, he's in a good position to win over Democrat Jenny Wilson.
A new UtahPolicy.com survey finds Hatch with a 15-point advantage over Wilson if the election were held today. Hatch leads 50-35%, with 15% of Utahns expressing no preference.
That illustrates the uphill battle any Democrat has in Utah running for a statewide office. Previous polls show that more than 3/4ths of Utahns do not want Hatch to run for an 8th term in 2018, but they would vote for him over a Democrat if he were to win the nomination.
A previous UtahPolicy.com survey gave Wilson a 45-34% lead over Hatch, but that poll did not identify their party affiliations. Once Utahns know that Wilson is a Democrat, they're less likely to vote for her over Hatch.
If Hatch does retire instead of trying for an 8th term, former GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney is reportedly interested in running to replace him. If that were to come to pass, our survey shows it wouldn't be much of a contest between Romney and Wilson, as Romney would easily win 72-21%.
Hatch's lead over Wilson is fueled mostly by Republican support.
- Republicans prefer Hatch 80-7%
- Democrats naturally gravitate toward Wilson 91-7%.
- Independents break for Wilson by a 51-29% margin.
Wilson will need to do better attracting Republican and independent voters if she wants to have a shot at beating Hatch next year.
If Mitt Romney were to win the GOP nomination, it would be pretty much game over, as his support would come from all across the board.
- Republicans overwhelmingly support Romney over Wilson 94-2%.
- 22% of Democrats would break ranks and vote for Romney, while Wilson gets 72% support from this group.
- Independent voters prefer Romney over Wilson, 64-26%.
Utah State University political scientist Damon Cann says, although Hatch has a lead over Wilson in this poll, there is still cause for alarm in the Hatch camp.
"While this poll shows Hatch at the 50% mark, this should not be considered a strong performance for Hatch. For a long-time incumbent in a state as Republican as Utah, a showing of 50% is not strong. It’s only really good news for him because previous polls have shown him losing in a head to head against Wilson," says Cann.
Cann also says while previous polls have shown that Utahns would rather not see Hatch run for an eighth term next year, when they are forced to choose between Hatch and a Democrat, they can't bring themselves to vote against him.
"A person who doesn’t want Hatch to run may turn out to be quite supportive of Hatch if they like the other options even less. In recent elections, we’ve seen a lot of people dissatisfied with all of the candidates who were forced to choose the candidate they considered the least bad," he said.
Wilson says she's encouraged by the head-to-head numbers with Hatch because a 15-point lead is not impossible to overcome.
"These numbers are encouraging. It’s telling given the margins that Hatch has won in previous elections that he’s only at 50% right now," she said.
Hatch's campaign manager Dave Hansen did not sound surprised that Hatch would open with a lead over Wilson should he decide to run again, but that's not top of mind for him right now.
"Senator Hatch's focus right now is where it should be, getting meaningful tax reform passed for the American people," said Hansen in a statement.
Hatch has not decided for sure whether he is going to run for another term next year, but he has repeatedly said he intends to run. Hatch vowed in 2012 that his seventh term would be his last.
During that 2012 campaign, Hatch refused multiple invitations to debate his Republican primary opponent, Dan Liljenquist, and the eventual Democratic nominee Scott Howell. Ultimately, Hatch did debate his opponents that year, but not on television. The only discussions happened on the radio.
Wilson says she expects Hatch to try that strategy again if he runs next year, but Utahns should demand more from the seven-term Senator.
"This Senate seat belongs to the people of Utah. Any candidate, Republican or Democrat, should be required to engage in a vigorous debate," says Wilson. "I would assume Sen. hatch would be more than willing to meet the Democrats nominee repeatedly to share his vision for the future. In the past, he has not been willing to debate."