SALT LAKE CITY — A majority of Utah voters believe Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, has been in office too long and should be replaced, a new Deseret News/KSL-TV poll shows.
The poll by Dan Jones & Associates found only 38 percent of registered voters agree that it's important to re-elect Hatch in 2012 because of his seniority. Fifty-nine percent said after 36 years, it's time for someone new.
And that someone new could be a Democrat. Utah hasn't had a Democratic U.S. senator since Hatch beat former Sen. Frank Moss in 1976.
If Utah's lone Democrat in Congress, Rep. Jim Matheson, gets in the Senate race, voters would be evenly split, according to the poll, with 47 percent favoring Hatch and 47 percent for Matheson.
Hatch's most likely GOP challenger appears to be Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah. In a primary race, 40 percent of poll respondents said they would vote for Hatch and 41 percent for Chaffetz.
Among a slightly smaller sample of voters who said they were likely to vote in a Republican primary, Hatch was ahead of Chaffetz, 47 percent to 44 percent.
But should Chaffetz win the GOP nomination, he wouldn't fare much better against Matheson in the general election. The poll showed 46 percent would vote for Chaffetz and 45 percent for Matheson.
The statewide poll of 406 registered voters, conducted June 13-16, has a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percent. Dan Jones & Associates also does polling for Hatch.
Hatch downplayed the results.
"I'm surprised it's as good as it is, because incumbents are always down in the polls" this far out from an election, he said. "It's too early."
Once voters start paying attention to the race, Hatch said they'll realize they don't want to lose his experience in the Senate and risk the benefits it can bring to Utah.
He said his campaign right now, though, is focused on getting supporters elected as delegates next spring to the 2012 state Republican Party nominating convention.
Last year, convention delegates defeated Sen. Bob Bennett's bid for re-election and sent two of his challengers to a GOP primary, where now Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, emerged as the nominee.
Chaffetz said he's still not ready to announce he's running for the Senate but was pleased with the poll results.
"I really am seriously considering doing it," Chaffetz said. "To be doing that well with the general public is astonishing, really. That's a very good sign."
The polls comes amid increasing friction between Hatch and Chaffetz, including the suggestion from Chaffetz that Hatch is pressuring people not to donate to the congressman.
"I wouldn't call it bad blood," Chaffetz said. "It just happens to be a relationship that never happened. I shake his hand at an event and say, 'Hi.' That's about it."
Hatch said he doesn't know why Chaffetz would say they have no relationship.
"I've treated him very well. Now, I can't just sit back and let him take cheap shots at me, which he's been doing lately," Hatch said. "I'm not some little pitty pat guy. I'm not some little weak person. I'm a strong man who is going to run on his record, which is a good record."
Matheson had no comment on the poll, his spokeswoman, Alyson Heyrend, said.
Earlier this month, Matheson said he was considering taking on either Hatch or GOP Gov. Gary Herbert if he doesn't run for re-election. Matheson has held the 2nd District seat in Congress for the past decade despite Republicans redrawing the district after the 2000 Census to make it tough for a Democrat to win.
He said he'll decide by the end of the year, likely after the Legislature has redrawn the congressional district boundaries again, this time based on the 2010 Census that gave Utah a fourth seat.
Hatch's campaign manager, Dave Hansen, said he doubts Matheson could win especially with President Barack Obama at the top of the Democratic ticket.
"When it comes right down to it, Utahns are going to send a Republican back to the U.S. Senate," Hansen said. Plus, he said, Utahns are going to want to help Republicans retake control of the Senate in the next election.
University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank said the poll is good news for Democrats.
"One of the things Democrats have frankly struggled to do in recent election cycles is to have statewide candidates that really can be competitive," Burbank said.
Democrats, Burbank said, see Matheson as a strong candidate for statewide office. The son of a popular Democratic governor, Matheson has "good name recognition and has shown that he's a good campaigner."