Democrats, third party candidate have little chance of representing Utah in the 1st and 3rd Congressional districts, new poll shows

A new poll shows the incumbent Republican congressmen in Utah’s 1st and 3rd districts appear safe as they head into the final weeks of the election, with what seem to be insurmountable leads over their opponents and strong job-approval ratings.

A Salt Lake Tribune-Hinckley Institute of Politics poll, conducted Oct. 3-9, shows Rep. Rob Bishop, who serves northern Utah’s 1st District, with a 32-point lead over his opponents. In the 3rd District, Rep. John Curtis is ahead by an even wider margin of 54 points.

That doesn’t come as a surprise to Jason Perry, director of the Hinckley Institute at the University of Utah, who said incumbents always have a “considerable advantage” in an election.

“They have a platform,” he said. “They have the podium to push their issues forward. They usually have had a chance to raise some money. Their name ID has had a chance to increase in the state. And the reality is it’s just hard to take on an incumbent — particularly an incumbent that has a high approval rating.”

The poll, with an average of about 150 registered voters in each district, has a margin of error of plus or minus 8 percentage points. It shows Curtis and Bishop both with a 57 percent approval rating among registered voters in their areas.

Curtis, who has been seemingly nonstop campaigning since before he took over former Rep. Jason Chaffetz’s seat in last year’s special election, said he’s happy to see his approval numbers trending “in the right direction.”

But because 23 percent of the respondents said they didn’t know enough to rate his performance, and with a 20 percent disapproval rating overall, Curtis said “there’s still a lot of work to do” to reach out to voters who haven’t heard his message yet.

Still, the poll shows he’ll likely earn his first full term in November, with 67 percent of respondents expressing support for the former Provo mayor. Those numbers are “gratifying,” he said, but they won’t change his campaign strategy.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

“As a candidate, you never take it for granted, no matter what the polls say,” he said. “You still keep your head down and work hard and keep working like every vote matters.”

Curtis faces a challenge in November from Democrat James Singer. The sociologist and millennial may also be the first Navajo candidate to run for the U.S. House in Utah, and he and Curtis remain split on a number of issues — from public lands to the president and reproductive health rights.

Just 13 percent of the voters polled in the 3rd District said they would support Singer. But he said those numbers are not reflective of “the kind of responses that I’ve been getting talking to people” in the field.

He believes a number of competitive ballot initiatives, a national desire to flip Congress blue and a distaste in Utah for President Donald Trump among both conservatives and liberals may work in his favor to bring people to the polls.

“I’m more concerned with making sure we have a good get-out-the-vote campaign,” he said. “So this kind of poll doesn’t take that into account. I’m curious to see how it will turn out in the end and if it ends up being how the polls say, well, that’s where the cards will fall, and that’s fine.”

(Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) James Singer speaks at the rally entitled "#SummerResistance Day of Action: Protecting DACA," put on by the Utah State Democratic Party and Utah State Democratic Hispanic Caucus at the Centro Civico Mexicano, Sunday, August 20, 2017.

Singer raised concerns about the accuracy of polls, pointing to numbers in the 2016 presidential election that incorrectly projected Hillary Clinton would win and, more recently, predicted socialist New York congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez would lose to the incumbent.

Even so, Perry said he doesn’t predict there will be a blue upset in this reliably red district.

“The reality is having 67 percent of the voters say they would vote for [Curtis] today shows he has really hit his stride,” Perry said. “He’s tackled some of the very difficult issues head-on and he even has four significant pieces of legislation going in Congress. I think people right now that are getting to know him seem to be happy with what he’s doing.”

‘Conservative Utah values’ in 1st District

Some candidates may see a 32-point lead from an incumbent candidate as insurmountable — but not Lee Castillo, the Democrat running against Bishop in the 1st District. Some 20 percent of the voters surveyed said they plan to throw their support behind him, and Castillo said “that excites the heck” out of him.

Like Singer, Castillo predicts that a wave of previously unregistered or disenfranchised voters will come out to the polls in November to throw their support behind him.

“We’re going to win,” he said. “I’m excited. Those numbers are… it’s a good outlook. We have people coming out that haven’t voted in so long because they’re inspired by our campaign.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Lee Castillo answers questions during the1st congressional district Democratic debate between Lee Castillo and Kurt Weiland at KBYU studios in Provo, Tuesday, May 29, 2018.

In an unexpected twist, United Utah Party candidate Eric Eliason qualified at the beginning of last month for the Utah Debate Commission’s 1st Congressional District debate with the support of 6.6 percent of the district’s voters. He was the only third-party candidate in any major race to make the commission’s cut.

The Tribune-Hinckley poll has Eliason positioned similarly, with the support of 10 percent of the district’s voters. The majority of those are Democrats or independents, which is consistent with the way the party — which formed last year — has polled so far, according to Perry.

“The United Utah Party is starting to have more consistent candidates,” he said, but noted “they will need some time to establish their brand.”

Eliason, a Logan businessman, said that his campaign had almost half its sizable budget still available for campaigning at the beginning of October and has “considerable dry powder left.”

“It’s great that we’re polling higher than any third party has polled before,” he said. “Every vote is a statement that we need more bipartisan government that puts country before party, and we think that’s a good thing.”

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) Congressional candidate Eric Eliason meets with The Salt Lake Tribune editorial board on Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2018.

Even facing two candidates who have earned enough support to stand in the debate, Bishop — chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee and an eight-term member of the House — is still best positioned for November’s election, Perry said.

“At this point, Rob Bishop is sitting with a 57 percent approval rating,” Perry said, with 28 percent expressing disapproval. “He’s a very well-known commodity, and 52 percent of Utahns said they would vote for him today. That is a considerable lead, and he is in a very good position.”

Bishop, who told The Deseret News last week that he has “no idea” how his re-election campaign is going, was traveling and was not available for comment. But his campaign manager, Kyle Palmer, said he was pleased with the results of The Tribune’s poll.

“Congressman Bishop is honored with the support that his constituents, once again in this poll, have shown him,” Palmer said in a message. “He is the only person in this race who shares their conservative Utah values and they recognize that.”

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)