Poll: GOP Utah attorney general race is close, with many undecided voters

(Tribune file photos) Republican candidates for Utah attorney general David Leavitt, left, and Sean Reyes.

Incumbent Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes holds a surprisingly small lead over challenger David Leavitt, the Utah County attorney, in a new poll about their hard-hitting Republican primary race — but undecided voters actually outnumber the supporters of either candidate.

Reyes leads with 30.8% support to 26% for Leavitt with a huge 43.2% undecided in a race in which Leavitt has accused Reyes of corruption, and Reyes has called Leavitt a liar who is unqualified and pushes unrealistic judicial reform.

The findings come from a poll of 500 likely voters in the June 30 GOP primary for The Salt Lake Tribune by Suffolk University. It has a margin of error of 4.4 percentage points and was conducted June 4-7.

“With 43% undecided, it’s pretty much anybody’s race,” Leavitt said. “That’s exactly where we’d like to be. As a challenger, that’s very encouraging.” He said it also closely mirrors internal polling conducted by his campaign.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Alan Crooks, campaign manager for Reyes, criticized the poll. “Based on the numbers this is simply not a credible poll,” he said, adding that his campaign’s internal polling shows Reyes “is winning by a much higher margin.”

Crooks contends the new poll is faulty because just 73% of respondents are now registered as Republicans, and 27% are either unaffiliated or belong to other parties but say they plan to register as Republicans to vote in the GOP primary as allowed by state law. He said that is a far higher percentage than actually switched so far. “So, it’s not defendable,” Crooks said.

Pollster David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center, stood behind the survey. He said respondents indicated they plan to switch parties as allowed. As he said after a similar complaint earlier by gubernatorial candidate Greg Hughes, "calling those Utahns liars is probably not a thoughtful approach to winning over voters.”

The new poll also shows the race is close even among just those who are already registered Republicans, with Reyes holding a 33% to 26% edge with 42% undecided. Using that subset of 366 Republicans, the poll’s margin of error would be 5.1 percentage points, plus or minus.

Crooks said despite what he calls “gross miscalculation in the poll,” it shows “Reyes is still winning. The more people get to know how great of a person Attorney General Sean is, the larger that margin will continue to grow.”

David Magleby, an emeritus political science professor at Brigham Young University, said results showing a close race are “a surprise. There’s no other way to put it.”

He said Reyes, who has been attorney general since 2013, “performed in a way that should have reassured the Republican base. He was anti-Affordable Care Act. He made it very well known that he was being considered for a Trump administration appointment” and took many conservative stands.

So, given Trump’s approval rating in Utah, “you would think he [Reyes] would be at or above 50%,” Magleby said. “So that prompts the question: What is holding Reyes down,” and why are so many people still undecided?

Magleby sees three main reasons: People don’t pay much attention to the post of attorney general; Leavitt may benefit from a “brand name” because of his brother, former Gov. Mike Leavitt; and Leavitt is pushing issues that remind people of a history of scandals by former attorneys general and tries to tie Reyes to the trend.

“Compared to governor, this is an office that people tend not to know a lot about,” Magleby said. “I think that’s holding him [Reyes] down.”

Magleby added, “The Leavitt name has a lot of brand-name appeal to a substantial number of Republicans." Mike Leavitt won three elections as governor, and he and David’s father, Dixie Leavitt, was a longtime state legislator.

Most importantly, Magleby said Leavitt is campaigning on issues that remind voters of scandals by former Attorneys General Mark Shurtleff and John Swallow — who were brought up on public corruption charges. Swallow was acquitted; Shurtleff’s charges were dropped.

“When Leavitt says, as he does repeatedly, that Reyes has a ‘for sale’ sign up on the door of the attorney general’s office, he’s reminding voters that the state has endured serial scandals in that office,” Magleby said. “And he has a kind of righteous indignation that I think when people listen to him, they say, ‘It is time for housecleaning.' ”

The political science professor said Leavitt’s message appears to be getting through “when he’s able to communicate it. But he hasn’t had a lot of money. He’s nowhere near as well funded as Reyes.”

Leavitt said he has enough money to get out his message, largely because he just donated $300,000 out of his own pocket. In comparison, Reyes has raised at least $1.35 million during his current four-year term.

Leavitt has accused him of selling his office to raise that amount. Reyes received $10,000 or more each from 38 donors. He took large amounts from sometimes-questionable industries including high-interest lenders, opioid makers, tobacco manufacturers, multilevel marketers and timeshare companies.

In an interview about the poll, Leavitt said, “We have a very long history in Utah of underwhelming performances from our attorneys general. This is an opportunity to shake away from that because, quite frankly, Mr. Reyes is doing the very same thing that his predecessors have done. And I think that is resonating with some people.”

Also, Leavitt said the race is close because he is pushing for judicial reform to reduce plea bargains — arguing a system that now largely avoids trial by jury puts justice at risk. He said only violent criminals should be jailed, and other punishment or rehabilitation should be found for others.

Reyes has attacked that as unrealistic and said it would grind the system to a halt and bankrupt it. He said anyone who says, as Leavitt does, that reform is the biggest issue in the race is unqualified to be attorney general. Also, Reyes said in a recent debate that Leavitt “will say anything to get elected, twists everything to make it sound pernicious and sinister.”

Some of the people who participated in the survey give other reasons for support or opposition of the candidates.

Republican Andrea Richards of Kaysville said she doesn’t like the fighting between the two candidates. “The infighting is not helpful to the party.” She said she is leaning toward Leavitt “because Reyes has become so political. ... I think the office needs to be about the law and not politics, and I worry it has become too politicized.”

Jesse Goodrich of Vernal said he is voting for Reyes “because of the way he defended the state of Utah during the Obama administration. He personally took on the federal government and defended us as well as anybody could.”

Katie Strader of Clinton is one of the large number of voters who is undecided in the race. “The reason I’m undecided is I don’t feel I’ve done enough research” but will do that before she votes.

The winner of the GOP attorney general primary will face Democratic nominee Greg Skordas.