Legislative activities tend to dominate discussions among Utah’s politicos this time of year. However, a recent poll regarding our two U.S. senators caught our attention. We take a break from the Legislature to ruminate on Senate politics.

A Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll indicates SenMike Lee has a 42% approval rating among Utahns. While this is three points lower than in the past, Lee remains popular with conservative voters. In addition, Lee faces a number of Republican, Democrat and independent candidates who have filed to run against him this year. What does all this mean?

Pignanelli: “Public opinion polls are like children in a garden, digging things up all the time to see how they’re growing.” J.B. Priestley

Politics behaves as a bright light because something is always reflecting its energy. Such is the case as the situations of Utah’s senators mirror the turmoil of the national GOP.

Lee was an outspoken supporter of President Donald Trump in the 2020 elections, but refused to participate in the Jan. 6 objections to the Electoral College delegate activity. Regardless, he is still receiving heat from “Never Trump” Republicans.

The Evan McMullin factor is interesting because he is attracting support from various corners of the political arena. However, as revealed in the recent PBS “Hinckley Report,” he carries almost $700,000 debt from his 2016 presidential campaign. This could be a factor in the campaign.

Lee will be on the Senate primary ballot. His renomination will be eased by more than just one intra-party contender because the core support will not be diminished.

As usual, history is helpful. We are in a scenario similar to 2010. Then the nation was led by a Democratic president with approval ratings under 50% and plagued with controversies regarding federal government expansion. Projections for the midterm elections favored Republicans. In Utah that year, the most conservative candidate won the Senate primary and general election. His name was Mike Lee.

The national political scene will continue reflection on Utah, especially when greater turbulence is caused by domestic and foreign affairs.

Webb: Lee has served nearly two terms in the Senate, but he’s never been much of a self-promoter. He’s not constantly featured on talk shows and he doesn’t inundate the news media with press releases. He’s no publicity hog. Political and reelection concerns seem to figure less in his Senate activities as compared to other politicians. He doesn’t seem to always see, or take advantage of, political opportunities.

Also, Lee is not naturally a charismatic, back-slapping politician. He’s an ideological conservative who is a bit low-key and doesn’t warmly relate to voters. To many people, he’s still an enigma. The senator is a true policy wonk and is happiest in policy discussions and debate, even on some obscure, though important, topics. 

For all of those reasons, Lee has never enjoyed high approval ratings. He faces some solid, moderate challengers for the nomination. And independent candidate McMullin may be a factor in the general election.

But if Lee raises a lot of money and runs a strong, highly-visible campaign with great messaging, he should handily win reelection.  

The poll also indicates that 51% of Republicans and 51% of Democrats approve of Sen. Mitt Romney’s performance. Although he enjoys support across the political spectrum, almost 45% of conservative Republicans have concerns about Romney. What is this telling us?

Pignanelli: The reflection mentioned above is especially relevant with these results. Romney is not shy in criticism of President Joe Biden. So, the across-the-board support for Romney suggests that frustration with the administration includes Democrats and independents. This is a harbinger of what may come in November.

Lee and Romney have two different styles that garner different areas of support. Normally, this is unusual in politics. But we are amidst an historical era with parties and demography realigning.

Webb: Romney has emerged as a real leader in the Senate, especially with regard to China, Russia and foreign affairs in general. He’s very visible and has a great communications operation. He’s a moderate, but has harshly criticized the Biden administration on a number of topics. He obviously hates Trump and has gone out of his way to be Trump’s main antagonist among Republicans in the Senate. A lot of conservatives dislike him for that.

Romney can easily win a general election in 2024. His challenge will be in the Republican primary where he could be vulnerable, depending on who emerges to challenge him.

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These senators will be faced with voting for or against the Supreme Court nominee put forward by President Joe Biden. Could this impact their support in Utah?

Pignanelli: How these senators message their support or opposition to the African American female nominee will affect their respective campaigns … and legacies.

Webb: It depends, of course, on who the nominee is and how far left her legal and political ideology veers. We can certainly count on a very progressive nominee, but if she is in the tradition of her predecessor, Justice Stephen Breyer, who is a practical liberal, then most Republican senators won’t fight the nomination. If the nominee is a left-wing radical ideologue, then Lee can probably bolster his reelection chances by opposing the nomination. I have no idea how Romney would vote.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Email: lwebb@exoro.com. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Email: frankp@xmission.com.

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