Sen. Mike Lee is poised to win a second term by a massive margin, and yet his Democratic opponent, Misty Snow, says her history-making run in and of itself is a victory.
One of the most conservative senators in the nation, Lee has the backing of 64 percent of likely Utah voters in a new poll commissioned by The Salt Lake Tribune and the Hinckley Institute of Politics. Snow received 21 percent, while 10 percent are undecided.
In reaction to the survey, conducted by Dan Jones & Associates, Lee said: "We haven't won anything yet, and we plan to finish strong."
Perceiving an easy path to re-election, Lee canceled a series of town-hall meetings in Utah to help Republicans running in more challenging races in other states.
Snow is the first transgender U.S. Senate nominee in the nation from a major party, and because of that she's enjoyed some national and international media attention. Snow has said she wants to be an example that anyone can run for office.
"People say when it comes to LGBT issues, I've already won," she said. "Just by winning a statewide primary, it was a huge victory."
She doesn't bring up her gender identity unless asked. Instead she's a Democrat running in the mold of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.. She has campaigned on a platform to bolster the working class.
Lee has stuck to the same message he had when he won office in 2010, arguing that he'll fight to reduce "the accumulation of power in Washington." But, like Snow, he has also focused considerable attention on poverty, though on this issue, like many, the two rivals have vastly different plans.
Snow is herself poor. She used her tax return to pay for the campaign filing fee. And after winning the Democratic primary, she's reduced her hours at the Harmons grocery store in Taylorsville where she works. She now has a Sunday shift as cashier, largely to pay for her health insurance. She doesn't own a car, relying on campaign volunteers to get her from event to event. And she jokes that through the campaign "I have made a lot of good friends in this process who will make sure I don't starve."
Snow has also taken the rare, but legal, route of paying herself using campaign funds. Her campaign has raised a little more than $50,000, and she's taken $1,375 of that as a salary. Federal rules allowing candidates to pay themselves were instituted as a way to assist low-income people who want to run for office.
She has said that, if elected, she'd fight for a $15 minimum wage and paid maternity leave. She wants state colleges and universities to be tuition-free.
Lee, a lawyer who hasn't been poor but did have to short-sale his home after he was elected to the Senate, opposes Snow's poverty-fighting strategies. He doesn't want a federal minimum-wage hike and believes making college free is impractical. Instead, he wants to loosen accreditation rules for higher education, allowing for alternatives to traditional universities and, in some cases, to boost the number of apprenticeships.
He also wants to institute work requirements for people receiving food stamps and make it easier for people to keep getting benefits as they begin to make more money. Lee says the current system often encourages people to skip a promotion or not get a job at all to maintain benefits.
"We don't want welfare to be a poverty trap," he said.
Snow argued it doesn't make sense to focus on food stamps and not raise the minimum wage. She said many of the people who get federal assistance have jobs; they are just paid too little. In these cases, food stamps "become a form of corporate welfare because we are subsidizing their low wages."
Lee and Snow agree that the Senate should pass criminal-justice reforms that would reduce the number of people locked up on drug charges.
Dan Jones, the pollster, said Lee and Snow had a respectful, policy-driven debate, but, in conservative Utah, more voters believe Lee is right on the issues. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has also floated Lee as a Supreme Court nominee, which Jones believes gives him some extra credibility in the state. Snow also couldn't fight off Lee's massive fundraising advantage. The senator raised $3.8 million in the past two years.
Lee's biggest challenge in this race was fending off a possible primary fight, after some Republicans thought him too unyielding in his first few years in office, leading to the 2013 partial government shutdown. Zions Bank CEO Scott Anderson tried to recruit a Republican challenger to Lee, but eventually switched course and endorsed the senator, as did former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman.
"That was humongous," Jones said.
His poll now shows Lee enjoying the support of 90 percent of Republicans. He also wins with independent voters, 54 percent to 24 percent.
Snow received the backing of 76 percent of Democrats, a lower number than most candidates receive from their own party. Part of that is because independent Bill Barron, running on a platform focused on climate change, got 6 percent of the Democratic vote, while Lee got 8 percent.
One possibility is that Snow alienated some Democrats when she criticized 4th Congressional District candidate Doug Owens for being "Republican-light" and, keeping to her economic theme, asked: "Why don't you stand up for the middle class?"
She criticized Owens, who trails Rep. Mia Love, R-Utah, for not taking bolder policy stances. Many Democratic insiders were frustrated that Snow would so publicly ridicule a fellow Democrat.
The poll includes responses from 823 likely voters contacted Oct. 20-27. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.42 percentage points.
— Editor's note: Former Gov. Jon Huntsman is the brother of Tribune owner and publisher Paul Huntsman.