SALT LAKE CITY — Former independent presidential candidate Evan McMullin would beat Sen. Orrin Hatch in a head-to-head matchup for the U.S. Senate, a new poll shows.
The Centrist Project, which is recruiting candidates to run for Senate and state legislatures in 2018, commissioned the survey to gauge Utahns' opinions on several issues and the viability of an independent candidate in the upcoming Senate race. Joel Searby, who managed McMullin’s late-hour presidential bid, is the group’s new senior strategist and is heading the drafting of candidates.
The poll by JMC Analytics found 33 percent of residents would vote for McMullin, 29 percent for Hatch and 11 percent for an unnamed Democrat if the election were held today. Another 10 percent favored someone else, and 17 percent were undecided.
Asked whether Hatch deserves to be re-elected or if it's time for someone new, only 21 percent of Utahns chose the seven-term senator, while 68 percent want someone new, according the poll.
JMC Analytics polled 625 registered Utah voters over landlines and cellphones on March 18 and March 20. The survey has a 3.9 percent margin of error.
Hatch, R-Utah, has said he plans to run for an eighth term in 2018 barring any unforeseen circumstances. He raised $1.3 million in the first three months of this year and ended March with $3.5 million in his campaign account. The senator spent more than $10 million to win his last re-election in 2012, which he had said would be his last.
Meantime, McMullin still has a $670,000 debt from his failed presidential campaign.
McMullin, a former CIA operative and BYU graduate, said last month that it's possible he would challenge Hatch or Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah.
Chaffetz, who had toyed with taking on Hatch, announced Wednesday that he won't seek re-election or run for any office in 2018. He also hasn't ruled out resigning before his term ends.
The five-term congressman said he always intended to get in and serve and get out. Asked if Hatch has stayed too long, Chaffetz said, "I’ll let you come to your own conclusion."
Hatch has said he could step aside if someone like former GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney were to replace him, though the senator said he doesn't think Romney is going to run.
"I don’t know which statement of Orrin Hatch's I believe. Which one is true? I don’t know," Chaffetz said.
Should Hatch decide not to run and with Chaffetz's 3rd District seat coming open, Utah's congressional delegation could take on a new complexion.
"People are going to look at that and say, 'Wow, there are two seats up for grabs here.' That doesn't happen very often. The turnover in the House and Senate is rare to none," Chaffetz said.
Meantime, the Centrist Project is looking to take advantage of what it sees as voter discontent with both major political parties.
“Both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders demonstrated that the current political environment is ripe for disruption,” said Nick Troiano, the organization's executive director and a former independent candidate for the U.S. House. “But the system is still badly broken, as we can see from the vicious partisanship over such issues as health care reform and Supreme Court nominations.”
In addition to drafting independent candidates, the group is trying to persuade elected Democrats and Republicans to abandon their party affiliations in hopes of finding common-ground solutions to the nation's problems.