SALT LAKE CITY — Utah’s only Democrat in Congress, Rep. Ben McAdams, holds a slight lead over Republican Burgess Owens in one of the nation’s most competitive races, according to a new Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll released Monday.
McAdams is up by 4 percentage points, with 45% of likely voters in the 4th Congressional District saying they’d vote for the freshman if the election were today, compared to 41% for Owens, 2% for Libertarian John Molnar, 1% for United Utah Party candidate Jonia Broderick and 11% who weren’t sure.
The poll, conducted Sept. 7-12 by independent pollster Scott Rasmussen of 800 likely voters in the 4th Congressional District for the Deseret News and the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics, has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
“It’s a very close and competitive race,” Rasmussen said. “It looks like McAdams has a bit of an edge, not surprising for an incumbent but the challenge for him or any Democrat is that we’re talking about Utah,” a state largely dominated by the GOP.
Still, Rasmussen said, there are some uncertainties about the Republican vote in Utah that could end up determining who represents the 4th District, which includes portions of Salt Lake and Utah counties as well as rural areas of the state.
“There are more Republicans with qualms about the president in Utah than other places,” the pollster said. President Donald Trump took Utah — a state that hasn’t voted for a Democrat for president since 1964 — with just 45.5% of the vote in 2016, his lowest support level in any of the states he won.
Decreased enthusiasm among Republicans for their presidential candidate, Rasmussen said, could make the difference for McAdams, a former Salt Lake County mayor who defeated two-term GOP Rep. Mia Love in 2018 by less than 700 votes.
Owens, a former NFL player, author and frequent Fox News guest, could benefit if voters start feeling better about Trump between now and November, he said. That could be related to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic or even some new revelation about the Democratic presidential candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden.
“That’s going to be the question. It looks right now like this race is competitive. If the national political environment shifts in one direction or the other, that will probably directly impact this race,” Rasmussen said. “But we just don’t know.”
McAdams is considered one of the most vulnerable members of Congress running for reelection this year. His race, once viewed as “leaning Democratic,” was shifted last month to a “toss-up” by the Cook Report, an independent and nonpartisan online publication based in Washington, D.C., that analyzes key political races around the country.
The new poll is “an encouraging result for McAdams, although it’s not clear it reflects real movement in the race or normal polling noise,” David Wasserman, House editor for the Cook Report, told the Deseret News. “We continue to see it as highly competitive, with perhaps a tiny advantage for McAdams, and this poll seems to support that.”
The poll found more voters have a favorable opinion of McAdams than they do of Owens, 52% to 45%. But the congressman is viewed unfavorably by more voters than his opponent, 36%-33%. Just 12% of voters said they aren’t sure what they think about McAdams, compared to 21% who are unsure about their opinion of Owens.
Those numbers are particularly positive for the incumbent, Wasserman said.
“The best news for McAdams in this poll is that he’s still viewed favorably by a majority of voters, and because voters are less familiar with Owens, there’s an opportunity to drive up his negatives,” he said.
McAdams’ campaign manager Andrew Roberts said in a statement the poll shows voters see the congressman as “someone who works to unify, not divide.”
Roberts said McAdams’ “record is about putting the health and safety of Utahns first, whether it’s stopping the resumption of explosive nuclear testing, supporting economic recovery, or protecting vital programs like Social Security and Medicare. He continues to work hard for every vote and to be the independent voice Utahns want and deserve.”
Owens’ campaign spokesman Jesse Ranney said he believes voters will choose the GOP candidate in the end.
“We are in a tight race and are confident that Utah voters will reject (House Speaker) Nancy Pelosi’s puppet by electing Burgess Owens in November,” Ranney said in a statement.
Jason Perry, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics, said so far, McAdams is doing what he needs to do.
“There is a formula for winning this district and it is that you need most of your own party, a few percentage points of the other party, and to really get a significant number of the unaffiliated voters. And that’s what Ben McAdams has managed to do at this point in this election cycle,” Perry said.
According to the poll, 92% of Democrats are backing McAdams, along with 19% of Republicans. But the “big win” for the congressman in the poll, Perry said, is that he has a majority — 51% — of voters who don’t identify with either party. McAdams is also showing strength among voters who see themselves as politically moderate, he said.
“There is a path to victory in that district,” Perry said. “It is not just based on which party you belong to.”
Both candidates have already hit the airwaves, and national partisan groups are starting to spend money on negative campaigning. McAdams is emphasizing the support he has from Republicans, while Owens is focusing on introducing himself to voters, but continues to harshly criticize Democrats in interviews.
On Sunday, Owens told Fox News’ Maria Bartiromo that Democratic leadership draws “narcissists and sociopaths” who have no empathy and “use misery as a political strategy,” during a discussion of Black support for Trump. He has called Democrats “Marxists” in the past.
Owens, who secured the nomination by defeating three Republicans in the June 30 primary, has lagged far behind McAdams in campaign resources. In his most recent financial disclosure to the Federal Election Commission, Owens reported less than $93,000 in cash on hand while McAdams had more than $2.6 million.
Since then, Owens has been busy raising money with the help of big names in the GOP, including the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California, and a speaking slot at last month’s largely virtual Republican National Convention.
A previous Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll of registered rather than likely voters in the 4th District had the race between McAdams and Owens tied at 35% apiece, with nearly a quarter undecided. Rasmussen said Monday the new poll shows the race remains close.