Independent Senate candidate Evan McMullin continues to put the heat on Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee in a possible November matchup.
A new Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll shows 41% of Utahns would vote for Lee and 35% for McMullin if the general election were held today. Another 20% don’t know who they would vote for, while 4% would choose someone else. Two third-party candidates have qualified for the November ballot.
The numbers are strikingly similar to a Deseret News/Hinckley Institute survey earlier this month.
To face McMullin, Lee must get past Ally Isom, a longtime community and business leader, and former state legislator Becky Edwards in the June 28 primary election. The two-term senator held a large lead over his two challengers in a previous poll.
The latest survey also found Edwards with a slight edge over McMullin in a possible general election. Edwards led McMullin 31% to 29% in a head-to-head contest, according to the poll. But 34% of voters were undecided.
In a general election race between Isom and McMullin, the poll shows McMullin getting 34% of the vote to 24%, for Isom, with a third of Utahns saying they don’t know who they would choose.
In the only debate among the three candidates, Edwards and Isom pulled no punches in taking every chance to accuse Lee of “ineffective leadership” in his 12 years in the Senate while calling Congress more “broken” than ever and in desperate need of new blood to break free from gridlock.
Of the three Republican candidates, though, McMullin appears to be on a collision course with Lee.
Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball last week downgraded the Senate race in Utah from “safe Republican” to “likely Republican” based on a number of factors, including the earlier poll results.
“While Republicans very likely will coalesce behind Lee after the June 28 primary (he is facing 2 other candidates), McMullin has caught some breaks over the past few months,” according to Crystal Ball, which Sabato runs from the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
The Crystal Ball notes that the Utah Democratic Party did not endorse its own candidate but threw its support behind McMullin. Utah GOP Sen. Mitt Romney remaining neutral in the race is another favorable development for McMullin because it could enable him to better court moderate Republicans.
“With all this in mind, we feel that Utah’s Senate race at least merits a spot on the board. Over the past few cycles, there have been some notable campaigns by independent candidates in red states, although none won or even came particularly close,” according to the Crystal Ball, noting some past competitive races involving independent candidates.
“ ... and the Lee-McMullin contest seems to have a little more intrigue than your average safe republican Senate race. So likely Republican it is.”
A former Republican, McMullin ran an independent, anti-Trump campaign for president in 2016, picking up 21% of the vote in Utah. Lee voted for McMullin in that election before falling in behind former President Donald Trump.
In the latest Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll, Lee maintains a big advantage over McMullin among Republican voters, 58% to 26%. The tables are turned among Democratic voters, with McMullin getting 58% to Lee’s 11%. Unaffiliated voters in the poll favored McMullin.
Utahns in the survey who identified themselves as “very conservative” or “somewhat conservative” overwhelmingly chose Lee, while “moderate,” “very liberal” or “somewhat liberal” voters went with McMullin.