It sounds ludicrous, but national Democrats think they might have a chance to knock off four-term incumbent Republican Chris Stewart in 2020.
A source with knowledge tells UtahPolicy.com that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has taken an interest in the race in UT02 due to polling showing President Donald Trump is not well liked in the district. Stewart is one of Trump’s most steadfast defenders in Congress. Polling also shows Stewart’s job approval ratings are underwater in the district, and he is also struggling with his name ID among his constituents. We agreed to withhold the source’s identity as they are not authorized to speak publicly about the DCCC’s interest in the race.
UtahPolicy.com’s most recent survey found 26% of Rep. Stewart’s constituents approve of his job performance, while 33% disapprove, which gives him a net negative approval rating of -7. Additionally, one-fifth of voters in Utah’s 2nd District had no opinion about Stewart’s job performance.
Voters in the 2nd District mostly disapprove of President Trump’s job performance, with 58% giving him negative marks and 46% approving - a negative net approval of -12. 50% of voters say they “strongly” disapprove of Trump’s job performance. Stewart’s closeness to Trump could be a vulnerability in 2020 if the negative marks for the president continue or grow.
Trump did carry the 2nd District in 2016, but only got 46% of the vote due to the presence of independent candidate Evan McMullin on the ballot who siphoned away nearly 17%. However, only 35% of voters in the 2nd District are ready to vote for Trump next year, while 37% said they would vote for the Democratic candidate.
Those numbers show Stewart could be in for a tough fight next year if Democrats can field a strong candidate.
Stewart won his first three elections by more than 25 points. But in the 2018 midterms Democrat Shireen Ghorbani lost to Stewart by less than 20-points which is a major accomplishment in one of the most Republican districts in the nation. Ghorbani was able to come within 50,000 votes of Stewart primarily because she got more than double Stewart’s vote total in Salt Lake County. Stewart prevailed because he got more than 3 times Ghorbani’s votes outside of Salt Lake County.
If a Democrat is going to knock off Stewart, they will have to have a massive increase in voter turnout in Salt Lake County, while dramatically improving their performance in the more rural areas. According to Daily Kos Elections, the population of UT02 outside of Salt Lake County is about 1.6 times that inside the county.
That’s not to say it’s an impossible proposition. Suburban areas turned against Trump in the 2018 midterms, handing control of the House to Democrats. Those suburban voters, particularly women, have not been trending back to the GOP. In six NBC/Wall Street Journal polls conducted in 2019, President Trump’s job approval ratings have been underwater in suburban areas, but his approval ratings have remained strong in rural areas.
Republican leaders are growing increasingly worried that they have not been able to reverse the trend of suburban voters drifting away from the GOP. The Washington Post reported earlier in August that Trump’s stance on immigration, fears of a recession and increasing gun violence could hamper efforts to reverse the trend.
UT02 has a partisan lean of R+16 according to the Cook Political Report, meaning a Republican candidate would be expected to perform 16-points better than the national average in an election. That is surely a heavy lift, but it has happened in Utah before. Democrat Ben McAdams knocked off Republican Mia Love in an R+15 district in 2018.
Even if Democrats aren’t able to oust Stewart next year, they could gain a tactical advantage overall by forcing Republicans to play defense in what is normally a rock-solid GOP district. Making Republicans commit resources to defend Stewart in 2020 would divert that money from flowing to other districts they hope to flip away from Democrats. It could also help Democrat Ben McAdams hold on to his 4th District seat as Republicans would have to divide their attention between recapturing UT04 and defending UT02.
It is not clear whether the DCCC is actively recruiting an opponent for Stewart 2020. So far, only Democrat Larry Livingston has declared his candidacy.
Stewart has drawn two challengers for the GOP nomination next year, Mary Burkett and Russell Jensen.
Stewart's campaign did not respond to our request for comment on this story.