U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch wants a sixth six-year term in the Senate next year, and while Hatch is clearly a strong incumbent, a new poll shows that only 45 percent of Utahns today want him re-elected, while 48 percent say it's time to pick someone new.
The question put by pollster Dan Jones & Associates for the Deseret Morning News and KSL-TV is known as a "naked re-elect" because there are no opposing candidates listed.
Jones asked 400 adults: "Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Republican, is running for a sixth term in the U.S. Senate. Do you believe Hatch should be re-elected to the Senate, or is it time to give someone new a chance to serve?"
Historically, such polls of popular Utah politicians find that more than 50 percent of their constituents want them to be re-elected.
In a 1998 poll on former Gov. Mike Leavitt, asking if the then-governor should win a third term in 2000, 64 percent said Leavitt should be re-elected.
Hatch's 45 percent "naked re-elect" number "is a surprise and shows we have a real opportunity here," said Utah Democratic Party Leader Wayne Holland.
The poll's numbers "are indicative of my feeling that Sen. Hatch has done a respectable job for Utah, but it's time for a change," said Pete Ashdown, a Democratic high-tech business owner who is already operating a Senate campaign challenging Hatch.
Nonsense, said Dave Hansen, Hatch's campaign manager.
"We feel comfortable with these (poll) numbers," said Hansen, who has run major GOP campaigns both inside and outside of Utah.
This poll question's results, combined with what Hansen termed as Hatch's favorable job approval ratings — 67 percent of Utahns approve of the job Hatch is doing, a story in Wednesday's Morning News showed — do not bode ill. "We see no problems with them," he said.
In 1992, the newspaper and Jones conducted a "naked re-elect" on Hatch two years out from his 1994 campaign. It showed that 47 percent of Utahns favored Hatch's re-election, while 46 percent said the GOP and voters should pick someone new.
Hatch went on to handily beat Democratic challenger Pat Shea 71-29 percent in 1994. "I'll gladly take those election results" in 2006, Hansen said.
But Holland and Ashdown say times have changed — and that Hatch has not changed with them.
Said Holland: "I'm hearing from all kinds of people, even the corporate executives that I know quite well, and who have favored (Hatch) in the past, that he's lost touch. He's too much a D.C. insider. You know, Sen. Hatch has preached for years the anti-Washington (sermon). But now he's part of the problem, not part of any solutions."
Ashdown, who is CEO and chairman of Utah-based XMission, an Internet service provider, said Hatch "has done a good job in (what Utahns wanted ) over the last 50 years." (Hatch has actually served 28 years in the Senate.)
"But it's time to look forward to the next century. Our grass-roots efforts show that there is a viable alternative to Sen. Hatch" — Ashdown himself, he said.
Jones' poll shows that, as expected, a lot of Republicans believe Hatch should be re-elected — 60 percent. But 33 percent of Republicans said it's time to let someone new serve in the seat.
Just last week, state House Majority Whip Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, got out of an intra-party challenge to Hatch, a campaign that Urquhart had been running over the summer.
Hansen said if Urquhart had not been criticizing Hatch in public, and within loyal Republican Party circles, Hatch "would certainly have been over 50 percent" in the naked re-elect poll.
Utah is a heavily GOP state, with Republicans outnumbering Democrats by more than 2-to-1. But Democrats and political independents together can beat a GOP candidate, as Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, has shown repeatedly in the 2nd Congressional District. And Jones found that only 16 percent of Democrats want Hatch re-elected, only 31 percent of independents want the senator to serve another six years.
Eighty-one percent of Democrats said it's time to give someone new a chance to serve; while 61 percent of independents say elect someone new next year, Jones found.
But Hansen said those numbers don't trouble him. "Sure, some say pick someone new. But then when (the Democrats or unhappy Republicans put up a name) they say, "We didn't mean that guy,' " said Hansen.
While President Bush, whom Hatch has staunchly supported over the years, is still popular in Utah, even here Bush's job approval numbers are suffering, noted Hansen. And that could be dragging down Hatch as well.
"But we are a year away from the election. We have yet to make our case" to citizens "on how the senator is helping Utah and the nation; a year for (voters) to feel comfortable in giving him another term," said Hansen.
At the time of the November 2006 election, "these poll numbers today won't even be remembered," Hansen said.