SALT LAKE CITY— GOP Gov. Gary Herbert has a 41-point lead in a new UtahPolicy.com poll, but his Democratic challenger, Mike Weinholtz, is counting on TV commercials introducing himself to voters to start closing the gap.
"I'm not surprised. I'm a first-time candidate running against an incumbent who has great name recognition," Weinholtz said of the poll's findings that only 23 percent of Utah voters would choose him for governor compared with 64 percent for Herbert.
Weinholtz said the poll was conducted largely before the launch of his media campaign, which includes nearly $180,000 in commercials on KSL-TV airing during the broadcast of the 2016 Summer Games in Rio that began Friday.
The poll of 858 likely Utah voters by Dan Jones & Associates was done July 18-Aug. 4 for the online political publication, and has a has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.34 percent.
Herbert's campaign manager, Marty Carpenter, said the governor is in "a solid position" after a primary race against fellow Republican Jonathan Johnson, chairman of Overstock.com.
Johnson beat the governor in the state Republican Party convention balloting in April, but Herbert easily won the June 28 primary election with 72 percent of the vote to 28 percent for Johnson.
Carpenter said the governor has not yet purchased any TV time for the November general election and probably won't kick off his campaign until after Labor Day next month.
"Summertime isn't typically the best time to expend those resources," Carpenter said. "We feel like we'll be ready to do what we need to do down the stretch to run a strong campaign."
University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank said Weinholtz, the chairman of CHG Healthcare, is doing what he needs to do in the race at this point.
"I think many people are going to say, 'I don't know who he is,'" Burbank said. "Usually, the limitation, of course, of a challenger against an incumbent governor is you don't have the resources."
But Weinholtz has already loaned his campaign $1 million and said he plans to come up with more money soon. Earlier this year, he announced he would not accept corporate donations.
According to financial disclosures on file with the state elections office, Weinholtz has collected just over $78,500 since mid-June while Herbert has raised more than $600,000, including a $250,000 donation from the Republican Governors Association.
"Maybe they think it's going to be closer than the numbers reveal so far. We certainly do," Weinholtz said of the Republican Governors Association donation. Herbert's term as the chairman of the National Governors Association recently ended.
Burbank said it's going to be difficult for Weinholtz to come up with issues with Herbert's administration that will resonate with voters. The governor, who took office in 2009, has consistently held a high approval rating.
"The advantage Gov. Herbert clearly has is that generally people are reasonably satisfied with government in Utah in the sense that the economy is doing well and there aren't any looming problems," Burbank said.
Plus, he said, most Utahns who vote Republican will stick with the party.
"I doubt that it's going to be a close race at all. I do think it will tighten up," Burbank said. "Just the pure mathematics of it make it hard to see how you put together a winning message."
Carpenter said the poll shows "that Utahns in large measure, regardless of party affiliation, recognize the governor's leadership has produced strong results for our state and they want it to continue."
Weinholtz said he will begin shifting from trying to establish name recognition to what he called "values messaging" in the coming weeks, but he declined to be specific about the issues he'll campaign on other than "being a voice for everyday Utahns."
He said his financial resources makes it a competitive race.
"I've said from the beginning we're serious about this campaign," Weinholtz said. "It's not a vanity campaign or a message campaign. We're in it to win it."