Republican Sen. Mike Lee isn’t popular with Utahns heading into the 2022 election as determined challengers, including some in his own party, raise lots of cash in an effort to put him out of a job.
But the two-term incumbent remains well-liked among Utah Republicans who largely determine U.S. Senate races in the conservative state, though a viable independent is poised to change the dynamic this year.
A new Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll shows 42% of Utah voters approve of the job Lee is doing, while 38% disapprove. Another 21% don’t know.
Among Republicans in the poll, though, his approval rating jumps to 57%, but down a little from past surveys. It shoots to 74% among survey respondents who identified themselves as “very conservative” and 57% among “somewhat conservative” voters. Lee gets only 19% approval among Utahns who say they don’t belong to a political party.
Dan Jones & Associates conducted the poll of 815 registered Utah voters Jan. 20-28. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.43 percentage points.
“Sen. Lee has enjoyed a comfortable position in the last two election cycles,” said Jason Perry, director of the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics.
“His continued high approval rating among conservative voters and Republican delegates have made him a clear front runner at convention and the eventual primary, as more moderate challengers cancel each other out fighting for the middle.”
Lee’s approval rating among all Utah voters has dipped three points since an October 2021 Deseret News/Hinckley Institute poll, while his disapproval has climbed four points. His approval has hovered around 45% the past couple of years.
Independent candidate Evan McMullin raised more money in the last three months of 2021 than any other Lee challenger, outpacing the senator as well in his latest quarterly Federal Election Commission campaign finance report. McMullin hauled in just over $1 million since entering the race last October, and has about $702,000 on hand to start the year. He has not received any PAC money.
“These numbers are a direct result of the growing coalition of Democrats, Republicans and independents who support Evan’s campaign and know Lee must be defeated,” said McMullin spokeswoman Kelsey Koenen Witt. “We’re humbled and grateful to Utahns who are stepping up, working together and putting differences aside in order to defeat Mike Lee.”
Still, Lee, who raised more than $650,000 in the last quarter, has more than $2.1 million in his campaign war chest.
In a fundraising email the Lee campaign sent last week, the senator referred to McMullin, writing “my opponent raised $1 MILLION last quarter” and “I’m being attacked by my challengers.” In another email Tuesday, Lee says he just had a major January fundraising deadline and “we fell just short of hitting our goal.”
“I’m the only conservative in this race who can stop the Radical Left,” Lee wrote.
Lee has several challengers within his own party including former Utah legislator Becky Edwards, business and community leader Ally Isom, and Richfield resident Ty Jensen. Democratic candidates include Kael Weston, who lost to Rep. Chris Stewart in 2020 and who jumped into the Senate race last week, and Austin Searle and Allen Glines.
Edwards raised $168,000 in the last quarter, according to her FEC report. She has raised over $1 million since launching her campaign last May and has $507,000 in the bank as of her last filing.
Almost 90% of her 2,100 individual contributions come from within the state of Utah, Edwards said.
“Every dollar is a call for more proactive, productive, and inclusive leadership, and I’m ready to bring that leadership to Washington,” she said.
Isom brought in $101,000 during that time. She has taken in $516,000 since getting into the race last July and has $240,000 on hand, her FEC report shows.
Isom’s message of collaborative, conservative leadership has resonated with Utahns in the 73 communities she has visited as evidenced by “100% of our contributions coming from individuals, zero dollars from PACs, and 85% from folks in state,” said Miranda Barnard, campaign spokesperson.
“We’re thrilled with our momentum and look forward to being on the primary ballot,” Barnard said.
The GOP primary winner in U.S. Senate races in Utah historically has gone on to win the general election. But this year, McMullin will be waiting on the ballot for the Republican nominee. Utah has not elected a Democratic Senator since 1970. The state has never elected a woman to the Senate.
McMullin, who ran an anti-Donald Trump campaign for president as an independent in 2016, isn’t well known among Utah voters. A Deseret News/Hinckley Institute poll in December found nearly two-thirds of Utahns have neither a favorable nor an unfavorable impression of him.
Lee has a sizable lead over the Republicans looking to take him out in the primary election this spring. Isom and Edwards are gathering voter signatures to secure a spot on the primary ballot under Utah’s dual nomination system. They also plan to seek the nomination at the state GOP convention where Lee has the inside track as delegates tend to be more conservative than Utah voters overall.
Both Edwards and Isom, who consider themselves “mainstream” Republicans, believe Lee is vulnerable. They say Utah is ready for new representation in the Senate and that Lee is not meeting the needs of everyday Utahns.
“Between his consistently low approval ratings and the small number of in-state donations he’s received, it’s clear Utahns are ready for a change,” said Edwards campaign spokeswoman Chelsea Robarge Fife.