Utahns don’t know what to think of Rep. John Curtis — or even who he is, according to poll

It’s been less than three months since Utah’s newest congressman took office.

So that might explain why nearly half of rookie Rep. John Curtis’ constituents don’t know how to rate his performance — or worse, don’t know who he is. In a new Salt Lake Tribune-Hinckley Institute of Politics poll, 46 percent of respondents said they just didn’t have enough familiarity with the Republican lawmaker to approve or disapprove of the job he’s done so far.

The numbers aren’t surprising. Curtis won the special election last year to replace former Rep. Jason Chaffetz, but the campaign calendar was condensed, Hinckley Institute director Jason Perry noted, leaving him less time to build name recognition and talk to voters than during a regular cycle.

Curtis was then almost immediately sworn into office Nov. 13 — even before the state finalized results.

What’s problematic for Curtis, then, is whether these so-so poll results leave him vulnerable to an in-party challenge as he runs for re-election later this year (though he remains confident in his “outreach efforts”).

“As we are getting our feet under us, I look forward to meeting those 46 percent and winning them over,” the congressman said in a written statement. “Like I promised on election night, I’m in Washington to fight for those who voted for me, voted against me, never voted and my constituents who need me the most. The rural, the vulnerable, the downtrodden and forgotten. They probably won’t vote or show up at events but they need [my] leadership the most.”

Still, with so many voters unsure, Curtis landed the lowest overall approval rating of the state’s four House members: 42 percent among the 198 registered voters in his 3rd Congressional District polled by Dan Jones & Associates. He was closely followed by Rep. Chris Stewart, who also fell below 50 percent.

Stewart, a Republican member of the House Intelligence Committee, fetched 1 percentage point higher approval in his 2nd District than President Donald Trump did with Utah voters statewide. At 49 percent and 48 percent, respectively, Perry suggests the two are ideologically linked.

“[The congressman] has been, apart from Sen. Orrin Hatch, the strongest supporter of President Trump in Utah,” Perry said. “And Utahns still have not come around to fully support Trump.”

During a speech at the state Capitol last week, Stewart — who during the 2016 campaign called Trump “our Mussolini” — told the House Republican Caucus that he has become a “huge convert” to the president and sees no evidence of collusion with Russia. It surprises him, he added, that Trump “has a 44 or 46 percent approval rating” while in the news media, “90 percent of the coverage is negative.”

The representative declined to comment on The Tribune’s poll.

In his district, 22 percent of the 199 survey respondents said they “don’t know” whether they approve or disapprove of Stewart’s job performance. While that’s somewhat high for a three-term representative, the number has come down from a comparable poll conducted in September 2016, where 33 percent were unsure of Stewart.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Chris Stewart visits the majority caucus meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2018.

Perry suggests that might have to do with geography. The sprawling 2nd Congressional District stretches from Davis County to St. George and includes the liberal bastion of Salt Lake City. “It’s a broad spread of people from the rural to the urban. And the more urban you get, the more Democratic you get — and that has an impact on these numbers,” he said.

Just three of the 41 Democrats (7 percent) polled gave Stewart a favorable rating while 65 percent disapproved of his performance in office. Unaffiliated voters — the second largest group behind registered Republicans — were less negative toward Stewart than Democrats, but still 48 percent disapproved compared with 34 percent approval.

Meanwhile, he got overwhelming support from 71 percent of Republicans — the second highest in-party approval among Utah’s House members after GOP Rep. Mia Love.

Love, too, takes the cake with the lowest number of constituents who report not having heard of her: an astounding 1 percent. “That’s a pretty amazing feat,” Perry said. She’s built a name for herself, he added, by campaigning against well-known Democrats in the slightly purple 4th District and, more recently, by balking at Trump’s “s---hole countries” comment.

Love and Rep. Rob Bishop, Utah’s longest-serving House member, both poll at 58 percent approval, though 18 percent still “don’t know” how to rate Bishop’s performance. Bishop has a 24 percent disapproval rating, while 36 percent have an unfavorable opinion of Love (the highest negative percentage of the state’s four representatives).

The four district-based polls were conducted between Jan. 15 and Jan. 22. The margins of error range from plus or minus 4.9 percentage points for Love’s survey to roughly 7 percentage points for Bishop’s, Stewart’s and Curtis’ numbers.