In her bid to unseat Rep. Chris Stewart, Democrat Shireen Ghorbani is finding that many voters don’t even know the name of their congressman
(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Second Congressional District candidate Shireen Ghorbani talks to Vonie Martin, while knocking on doors in Tooele, Saturday, July 7, 2018.
Tooele • As Democrat Shireen Ghorbani campaigned Saturday, the people who answered the door at four of the first five houses she approached didn’t know who represents them in the 2nd Congressional District.
The one who did know the name of three-term Rep. Chris Stewart followed it up with a cuss word.
“It’s interesting how many say, ‘I know it’s not [4th District Rep.] Mia Love, but I don’t know who my representative is,” Ghorbani said. “What I say to them is the fact you don’t know who your representative is his problem, not yours.”
A new poll shows that while Stewart leads his race for a fourth term by a comfortable 2-1 margin, one of every three of his voters still doesn’t know enough about his work to rate it.
Stewart leads Ghorbani 48 percent to 24, with 14 percent favoring others (United Utah Party candidate Jan Garbett in on the ballot) and 13 percent undecided, according to a new Salt Lake Tribune/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll.
When registered voters were asked if they approve or disapprove of Stewart’s job performance, his margin of approval was 47 percent to 23 — but a large 30 percent said they don’t know, even though he has represented them for six years. He has consistently been the state’s least known member of Congress
Even new Rep. John Curtis, elected last year in a special election in the 3rd District, had a smaller 25 percent say they did not know how to rate his performance.
(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, makes his opening remarks during his town hall meeting at the West Valley City Hall in West Valley City Wednesday May 2, 2018.
So Stewart — a former Air Force pilot of the stealthy B-1B bomber
, designed to have a small radar profile — isn’t showing up on the radar of many of his voters.
That’s not necessarily bad for his political career, says Jason Perry, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah.
“People who are well-known in political circles, like him, sometimes are not as well known outside of them with the public,” Perry said. “That’s not a huge problem unless the undecided turn into unfavorable ratings, and that does not appear to be happening.”
Stewart’s campaign opted to issue only a short statement about the poll. “With an approval-disapproval rating of 2-1, we’re looking forward to the election in November,” said Lance Stewart, who is Chris Stewart’s son and campaign manager.
Despite Stewart’s wide lead, Ghorbani said she believes she can win — and the sizable number of voters who know little about Stewart gives her an opening to exploit.
“I’ve never run for office before, and I’m already at 24 percent. That feels big to me,” said the 37-year-old communications professional at the University of Utah. She has two masters degrees and is a married mother of a toddler.
“I don’t think he’s made himself very connected to voters’ day-to-day experiences.” But she said she and her campaign are “doing that by knocking on the doors of voters and just saying, ‘What matters to you? Do you feel your representative is working on those issues every day? If not, it’s time to call him home.’ ”
One voter she talked to in Tooele on Saturday was Bethany Pfeiler, a Republican. After Ghorbani asked about her concerns and listened for a few minutes, Pfeiler gave her a hug. “I think she was awesome and kind,” Pfeiler said. “I’ve never had anyone come to the door and listen to me like that before.”
(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tooele resident Bethany Pfeiler, talks to 2nd District candidate Shireen Ghorbani, as she goes door-to-door in Tooele, Saturday, July 7, 2018.
But she said she needs to study more before making a decision on how to vote.
As Ghorbani has been talking at those doors, she said she repeatedly hears some topics where Stewart is out of tune on with voters — and is campaigning on them.
One is President Donald Trump. While Stewart famously once called Trump “our Mussolini,”
he more recently has been supporting and defending him.
“Was Stewart telling the truth when he called him ‘our Mussolini,’ or is he telling the truth now? I’m disturbed that we don’t have a clear picture,” she said.
Ghorbani said she’s upset that Stewart doesn’t call out the president especially on such acts as separating children of illegal immigrants from their parents, or lack of tact with foreign leaders — including calling some countries “s---hole” nations.
“The most Stewart will do is a few days later tweet out that immigrants are the backbone of our nation,” she says. “We need a clear and strong voice.”
Ghorbani is the daughter of an immigrant. Her father is from Iran, and she hopes to become the first Iranian-American in Congress. She and her husband were also Peace Corps volunteers in Moldova, a former Soviet republic, and she hopes to become the first female former corps member elected to Congress.
Another area where she attacks Stewart is health care
. Ghorbani’s mother fought and died from cancer in 2016 — and the family faced bills it did not know how to cover even with Medicare’s help. That’s what led her to run.
“At the time, Stewart listed on his website that one of his top accomplishments was voting against Obamacare 40 times,” she said. “If you are going to vote against something 40 times, I’d rather see what solutions you may have to drive down costs and make it more affordable. He’s not a leader in that area.”
Ghorbani said demographics in her district are not all that different from the 4th District, where the race between Rep. Mia Love and Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams is seen as close. “Frankly the reason we believe the 4th District is the only flippable race is because someone [Doug Owens] really ran their guts out there twice.”
She said she will do that, too. But Stewart has a big money advantage — with six times more in the bank, according to their most recent disclosures in April. Stewart then had nearly $354,000 compared to about $53,000 for Ghorbani.
The poll interviewed 147 registered voters in the 2nd District from June 11 to June 18, and has a margin of error of 7.7 percentage points.