Democrats really do have a chance to be competitive in the US Senate race in Utah next year, but that potential for a close contest is completely predicated on Congressman Jim Matheson taking the plunge. Other potential Democratic nominees we looked at- even though they're well liked by voters in the state- would lose by the sorts of astronomical margins Democrats are accustomed to losing by in Utah.
Matheson would lead incumbent Senator Orrin Hatch 45-44 in a head to head, and would hold a wider lead over fellow Congressman Jason Chaffetz at 47-42.
Part of the reason that Matheson would be so competitive is that there are some signs of weakness in Hatch and Chaffetz's numbers. Only 46% of voters approve of Hatch to 43% who disapprove. He is extremely weak with independents these days, as only 27% give him good marks to 60% who disapprove. And Democrats (71%) are more unified in their dislike of Hatch than Republicans (67%) are in their support.
Chaffetz does a little better than Hatch, with 43% of voters rating him favorably to 34% with an unfavorable opinion. Independents split against him 33/47, and 65% of Democrats have a dim view of him while only 61% of Republicans see him positively. In most states a 43/34 favorability spread for a Congressman looking to move up to the Senate would be a very good start. But in a small state with nearly a 30 point Republican identification advantage Chaffetz's numbers are not terribly impressive.
The main reason Matheson is so strong against Hatch and Chaffetz is Matheson though. 59% of voters in the state have a favorable opinion of him to 28% with an unfavorable one, amazing numbers for a Democrat in one of the reddest states in the country. He's viewed favorably by majorities of Democrats (76/15), independents (58/28), and Republicans (52/33) alike. There are few politicians who pull that off. Matheson manages to lead Hatch because he wins over 20% of the GOP vote and leads by 37 points with independents. Against Chaffetz he goes all the way up to 23% of the Republican vote and holds a similar 35 point lead with independents.
Matheson is the only way this race is competitive for Democrats next year. We also tested former Attorney General Jan Graham, the last Democrat elected statewide in Utah, and 2010 nominee Sam Granato. Graham (27/18) and Granato (28/22) are both decently popular, particularly for Democrats in Utah. But Graham nevertheless trails Hatch by 21 points at 55-34 and Chaffetz by 19 at 53-34. And Granato's deficits are even wider, down 25 to Hatch at 56-31 and 21 to Chaffetz at 54-33.
If Matheson runs it will certainly be the most national attention a political race in Utah has drawn in many, many years.
Full results here