New poll shows Mike Lee with double-digit lead over Evan McMullin, but pollster says the independent is no typical opponent

Utah Sen. Mike Lee’s support of former Republican President Donald Trump could turn off some GOP voters in Utah.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sen. Mike Lee speaks at his election party at Awaken Event Center at the conclusion of Utah's primary elections on Tuesday, June 28, 2022. A July poll from a centrist super PAC gives Lee a 14-point lead over independent candidate Evan McMullin.

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It isn’t easy to get a read on the U.S. Senate race between Mike Lee and Evan McMullin.

If it were a traditional Republican vs. Democrat contest, Lee would likely be cruising to a third term since Utah hasn’t elected a Democrat to the Senate since the 1970s. McMullin, running as an independent, is challenging Lee from the center-right. A new poll shows Lee in a good position to win a third term, but he’s not home-free.

The centrist Center Street PAC survey finds Lee with a 14-point lead over McMullin among likely voters, 50-36%. While that is a comfortable margin for Lee at this point in the race, it’s far off the winning pace from his two previous campaigns, which he won by 29 and 42 points.

The Center Street survey, which was conducted on July 12 among 561 registered Utah voters, found that 15% of those voters were still undecided.

Lee won the June primary election with 62% support, defeating GOP challengers Becky Edwards and Ally Isom. Utah Democrats did not nominate a candidate this year, setting up a head-to-head battle between Lee and McMullin.

Republicans are getting behind Lee while unaffiliated voters and Democrats are supporting McMullin. In a March survey, 46% of Republicans favored Lee while 22% backed McMullin. The most recent survey, taken shortly after the June primary election, found 66% of Republicans prefer Lee while 21% would vote for McMullin. In the most recent poll, 47% of unaffiliated voters and 63% of Democrats said they would vote for McMullin.

The poll shows Utah voters’ opinions of Lee are mostly locked in at this point, while their feeling of McMullin is still undecided. The poll shows 41% of voters view Lee favorably and 37% hold an unfavorable opinion of the incumbent. For McMullin, 34% view him favorably and 25% have a negative opinion, but four of 10 voters still hold a neutral view of the independent.

Former Republican congressman Joe Walsh, the chairman of Center Street, says the polling shows Lee’s position is far from secure and there is a narrow path for McMullin to pull off an upset.

“McMullin is not the typical Mike Lee opponent. Combine that with what looks like some Republican opposition to Lee, and this is going to be a competitive race,” Walsh says.

(Briana Scroggins | Special to The Tribune) Utah independent Evan McMullin walks with supporters to the auditorium during the Utah Democratic Convention at Cottonwood High School in Murray, Utah on Saturday, April 23, 2022.

Walsh admits his organization has plans to get involved in the race to boost McMullin’s upset bid, which is the reason they have been polling in the Beehive State.

“Some of the data guys I work with saw that 14-point spread and thought it was bigger than they expected. I looked at the 14-point margin and thought it wasn’t that bad,” Walsh says.

Walsh believes former President Donald Trump could be the wild card in the race. Utah Republicans are more Trump-skeptical than other GOP-controlled states in the West. Trump carried Utah in 2016 and 2020, but his winning percentages were much lower than other recent Republican presidential nominees.

Center Street found Trump’s favorability among Utah Republicans lower than other GOP-led states. Just 42% of Utah Republicans viewed the former president “very favorably,” while 19% of Utah GOP voters viewed Trump “very unfavorably.” That hesitancy toward the former president could provide an opening for McMullin to peel some GOP voters away from Lee. The former president endorsed Lee’s re-election in April.

Walsh admits it will be a slog for McMullin to improve his chances against the incumbent. He will need to focus on improving his favorability among persuadable voters and find a way to close the gap with Lee heading into the fall.

“If we get to a spread of seven, eight or nine points with a month to go, this race will be very interesting. If Lee is still at 50, 51, or 52% support, that also makes this race interesting. If that happens, we have money we can put into the race to help McMullin in the final months,” Walsh said.

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