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Opinion: How strong is Sen. Mike Lee heading into election season?

Lee will face divided opposition that confuses voters and encourages supporters. Thus, the story will continue not to be about them but about Lee.

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Utah Sen. Mike Lee speaks at the American Legislative Exchange Council breakfast.

Utah Sen. Mike Lee speaks at the American Legislative Exchange Council breakfast session via Zoom as the group gathers at the Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City on Friday, July 30, 2021. Lee faces several challenges heading into the election seaason.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

“Political junkie” is an expression frequently used because the description is so apt. Politicos are addicted to polls, among other things. Our kind recently received another infusion of this mind-bending drug — a survey on the Utah U.S. Senate race.

The Deseret News/Hinckley Institute pollindicates that 67% of voters in the upcoming Republican primary support incumbent Sen. Mike Lee. The remaining 33% are split among six GOP challengers. Any surprises? What does this suggest about the convention and primary elections?

Pignanelli: “I don’t even know who McMullin is.” — Chris Bleak, commentator, Hinckley Report

Most of the media and pundit coverage of the Senate race has focused on independent candidate Evan McMullin, his bipartisan support, and the intraparty foes lined up against Lee. But the survey reveals the true dynamics underpinning this race — Utah’s senior senator is very strong within GOP ranks.

The Republican precinct caucuses in March were lightly attended, allowing the more extreme and engaged elements to control delegate selection for the conventions. This factor is already impacting the county gatherings. Therefore, Lee will perform very well at the state event, especially because his opposition is disbursed among many challengers.

Lee’s opponents were hopeful that Democrats and independents would repeat their actions in the 2020 gubernatorial primary and change affiliations for the 2022 Senate primary. But the McMullin presence deflected most of this activity.

Lee will face divided opposition that confuses voters and encourages supporters. Thus, the story will continue not to be about them but about Lee.

Webb: Lee will come out of the state GOP convention with a big win and real momentum. Republican voters like him. I very much like both Ally Isom and Becky Edwards, two Republicans opposing Lee. They are terrific people, moderate conservatives and excellent candidates. It’s unfortunate they’re both in the same race because they will split the moderate vote. But even their combined votes likely wouldn’t be enough to defeat Lee in the primary.

Utah Republicans are simply not going to send another moderate (in addition to Sen. Mitt Romney) to the U.S. Senate to do battle with the Biden administration and liberal Democrats. They want a red meat Republican to fight for conservative causes in Washington.

Lee does have some vulnerabilities. As I’ve written previously, he’s more a conservative policy wonk than a back-slapping politician. He’s relatively low-key, and his charisma needs some work. But he fights for conservative causes and principles, and Utah Republicans appreciate that.

The poll also indicated a baseline for the major candidates in the general election: Lee gets 43% support in this early poll; independent Evan McMullin, 19%; and Democrat Kael Weston, 11%; with 24% undecided. McMullin refuses to reveal if he will caucus with Democrats or Republicans. Will this impact any momentum he has?

Pignanelli: The core support for Lee is such that he must obtain only a small fraction of the undecided for a guaranteed victory in November.

McMullin advocates claim he will not formally caucus with Democrats or Republicans in the U.S. Senate. Supposedly, such positioning gives him a powerful leverage. This is a fantasy because any member of Congress who does not affiliate with a major party diminishes effectiveness to the detriment of their state (i.e. committee assignments). Expect this naïveté to be an election issue.

In the event McMullin announces that he will caucus with a major party, a portion of voters would flee to the arms of other candidates. Consequently, running as the alternative to Lee in 2022, without an established reputation in Utah and defined political personality, will deliver McMullin no better results than when he opposed Donald Trump in 2016 (21.5%)

Webb: Forty-three percent support certainly isn’t great for Lee at this point. But with Weston and McMullin splitting the Democrat/liberal/moderate vote, Lee is clearly the favorite.

Most Utahns have no idea what McMullin stands for, other than that he loathes Donald Trump and conservative Republicans like Lee. That’s not a great platform to run on.

McMullin’s endorsement by leading Democrats indicates that he’s no conservative. I receive his many email messages begging for money and he comes across as a political opportunist desperate to get elected to something.

Some high-profile Democrats are supporting McMullin. Will they pay a price as candidates in future Democratic contests?

Pignanelli: The extreme right and left share many characteristics. This includes purity tests for candidates regardless of good intentions or strategic purposes. Democratic supporters of McMullin should expect major grumblingwhen attending party functions or seeking office.

Webb: A number of leading Democrats have gambled big by endorsing McMullin, with the clear intent of encouraging Weston to drop out of the race. McMullin would love to have the full weight of the Democratic Party behind him, plus some disgruntled Republicans.

But Weston doesn’t seem like the sort of fellow who will drop out. Thus, the Democratic ruse may backfire. Endorsing McMullin is an acknowledgement by high-profile Democrats that a Democrat can’t win statewide office in Utah. That’s a sad message that the party base doesn’t want to hear.

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.