Perhaps because of unintentional assists by President Donald Trump, Democrat Shireen Ghorbani has whittled her way to within 11 points of GOP Rep. Chris Stewart — after trailing him by 24 points earlier this summer.
Stewart now leads 45-34 percent in a UtahPolicy.com poll released Tuesday. Libertarian candidate Jeffrey Whipple received 5 percent, and 16 percent of voters were undecided.
Jason Perry, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah, said earlier polls showed that up to 30 percent of voters were undecided in that race, and “Ghorbani is starting to capture some of those ‘don’t knows,’” while Stewart’s support appears static.
Perry added that one reason is “there is a Trump factor in these numbers” — and some voters may be punishing Stewart for his support and defense of Trump.
Several national polls have shown Trump’s approval dropping in recent days. CNN and the Washington Post/ABC in separate polls measured his approval at 36 percent.
While during the 2016 campaign Stewart once called Trump “our Mussolini,” he recently said that was meant to be tongue-in-cheek. He also claimed he was joking when he more recently said, “I love this president.”
But he has supported and defended Trump, although not some of his tweets nor his criticism of U.S. intelligence agencies.
“Congressman Stewart has been supportive of President Trump on key issues” that many Utah Republicans care about, Perry said. “But every candidate would be wise to make sure they are running their own campaign, and not be put in a position where they need to explain and defend the actions of the president.”
Ghorbani, a University of Utah communications professional who has two master’s degrees, also sees Trump backlash as among reasons why she is gaining.
“Representative Stewart has come out repeatedly to defend this president,” she said. “Utahns are fundamentally decent people and we don’t feel like the person in our White House is worthy of respect or, frankly, is leading with the level of dignity and decorum that is required.”
She added, “We meet a lot of people who are concerned about the direction our country is headed, and we don’t have representatives who are willing to keep [Trump] in check.”
Lance Stewart, the son and campaign manager of Rep. Stewart, raised doubts about the UtahPolicy.com poll by Dan Jones & Associates. It surveyed 200 likely voters in the district and has a large margin of error — 6.9 percent.
“Like any professional organization, we question the accuracy of any poll with such a small sample size,” he said in a written comment. “Last week we completed a poll of our own over five times the size of the UtahPolicy.com poll which indicated that we are on track to win by a similar margin to that of our past victories.”
Stewart two years ago defeated Democrat Charlene Albarran 62 percent to 34 percent.
Ghorbani, though, is convinced she is gaining. Besides the Trump factor, she said she and volunteers have knocked on 30,000 doors to talk to voters — and she says Stewart is out of step and out of touch with many residents she talks to.
“People are concerned about the representation they have in Rep. Stewart, from his votes to gut health care to the work that’s he’s doing to dismantle protections of public lands to not standing up for the issues we care most about from education to the air we breathe,” she said.
Stewart, though in his third term, is still Utah’s most unknown member of Congress. In 2016, a Tribune poll showed a majority of voters either were neutral toward him or didn’t know. The most recent Tribune poll, in June, had 30 percent with no opinion.
The new tightening poll results come before Stewart and Ghorbani face off in a debate Monday at 6 p.m. at Dixie State University sponsored by the Utah Debate Commission, which will be broadcast live on most Utah TV stations.
“This debate is a good chance for these candidates to stake out some positions and make a case why they are the right person,” Perry said.
So is the race now competitive? “What every candidate needs to be successful is name ID and money. Both of them are trying to improve that right now,” Perry said — noting Ghorbani is gaining, but Stewart has many advantages.
The 2nd District is heavily Republican, and the poll shows Stewart is supported by most conservatives — while Ghorbani leads among the outnumbered moderates and liberals. Their most recent campaign disclosure statements showed that Stewart had more than $245,000 in cash on hand, compared with Ghorbani’s $65,000.
The Democrat said she plans to continue her grassroots campaigning right up to the election and says it can be effective because she doubts that Stewart can afford many broadcast ads. “We’ll be knocking on doors right up to the end.”
Perry said the race is essentially just starting to heat up, because most voters don’t pay attention to the election until after Labor Day. “I think we are going to see a lot more of these candidates, and there is a lot of track left before election day.”
The UtahPolicy.com poll was conducted Aug. 22-Sept. 6 by Dan Jones & Associates among 202 likely voters in the 2nd District.
Meanwhile in Utah’s 4th District House race between GOP Rep. Mia Love and Democratic Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams — which has captured the most attention as the state’s closest major race — Love on Tuesday released internal poll numbers by Y2 Analytics showing that her lead has grown to a 51-42 percent margin.
That 9-point margin is the same spread found by a Utah Debate Commission poll conducted Aug. 11-27.
However, a UtahPolicy.com poll by Dan Jones & Associates last week showed Love with a 49-46 percent margin. Also, McAdams said an internal poll his campaign conducted Aug. 20-23 showed that he had closed to within 2 points.