New poll shows Rep. Chris Stewart with a strong lead over Shireen Ghorbani in Utah’s 2nd District race

(Courtesy of FOX 13) Shireen Ghorbani, left, and incumbent Republican Rep. Chris Stewart debate at Dixie State University on Monday, Sept. 17, 2018.

A new poll shows that Democratic candidate Shireen Ghorbani has struggled to make gains on Rep. Chris Stewart over the past few months, despite robust fundraising and knocking on thousands of doors.

Stewart, a three-term Republican congressman, has a comfortable 23-point lead heading into the homestretch of the 2nd Congressional District race, according to the Salt Lake Tribune-Hinckley Institute of Politics poll.

The October survey showed Stewart leading Ghorbani 52 percent to 29 percent, with 6 percent backing Libertarian candidate Jeffrey Whipple and 12 percent undecided. The congressman was ahead 48-24 in a Tribune-Hinckley poll in June.

Ghorbani viewed the figures with a glass-half-full perspective, noting that her support had grown by 5 percentage points over the past four months.

“I would say that there’s promising news for us because we continue to see movement in the right direction,” she said in a Friday phone interview.

Her difficulty catching Stewart in the polls illustrates how challenging the district is for Democratic candidates, said Morgan Lyon Cotti, associate director of the Hinckley Institute at the University of Utah.

“It has some of the most conservative portions of the state in it, with Davis County and Washington County,” she said.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Stewart, a best-selling author and former Air Force pilot, was not available Friday to discuss the poll results, but his campaign released a statement.

“We’ve worked hard during this campaign and have always been confident that our hard work would pay off,” Stewart said in the statement. "Contrary to what some would say, this election is about policy and the majority of people in our district agree with the vision we have ... and the direction we are headed. We have a little more than two weeks to go and plan on working through to the last day.”

The survey has suggested that voters are growing more familiar with Stewart, who’s earned the dubious distinction of being the state’s least-known politician. One in 5 voters polled said they didn’t know enough about Stewart to rate his performance, a step up from a June survey in which 1 in 3 gave the congressman a shoulder shrug.

“This could ... be an indication that this is an election year, and he’s having to get out there and pound the pavement," Lyon Cotti said. “But 20 percent is still a pretty high don’t-know rate.”

Forty-eight percent of those polled said they approved of Stewart’s performance, while 32 percent did not.

Ghorbani, a communications professional at the University of Utah, said she has knocked on more than 55,000 doors in her bid to unseat Stewart and has heard voters express dismay with the acrimony that pervades national politics.

The Tribune-Hinckley poll found that 58 percent of 2nd District voters disapprove of Trump’s performance in office, 43 percent of them strongly.

A couple of years ago, Stewart garnered attention for labeling then-candidate Donald Trump “our Mussolini” but backed off his criticism and later announced he’d vote for the Republican nominee over Hillary Clinton.

District residents want a representative who stands up to the Trump administration on immigration, health care and trade, Ghorbani said.

“There’s a real feeling that even though this administration talks a good game for working people, what we see more often are headlines dominated by really bad and inappropriate and often cruel behavior,” she said, “whether that’s name-calling or something much more dire, like separating children from their families at the border."

Recent campaign finance reports indicate Ghorbani is neck and neck with Stewart when it comes to fundraising. From July through September, Ghorbani’s campaign hauled in $138,797 in donations, exceeding Stewart’s net contributions by about $8,000.

Stewart still ended the filing period with more cash in the bank — roughly $206,800 compared to Ghorbani’s $131,000.

The bulk of Ghorbani’s money came from individual contributors. She noted that Stewart received $65,500 from political action committees, many of them tied to corporate interests.

While a UtahPolicy.com poll released last month had Ghorbani pulling within 11 percentage points of Stewart, the Tribune-Hinckley survey undercut the notion that the race is tightening.

The pollsters surveyed 401 registered voters from Oct. 3 to 17 and ended up with a margin of error of plus or minus 4.9 percentage points.