1 of 1
Deseret Morning News graphic

So, who is the most popular politician in heavily Republican Utah?

Maybe President Bush? Utahns have twice given him his highest percentage victories among the 50 states.

How about U.S. Sens. Orrin Hatch and Bob Bennett? They've always been popular here.

Or Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.? Utahns always seem to like their governors.

Nope. While those GOP officeholders get decent approval ratings in a new Deseret Morning News/KSL-TV poll, Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson gets the highest job approval ratings from his constituents among the whole bunch.

Has one of the reddest states in the Union sprung a blue leak? What is going on here?

"Matheson is just very popular among his 2nd District constituents," says pollster Dan Jones, who conducted the Nov. 10-12 survey for the newspaper and TV station.

Said Matheson: "I've always said Utahns look at the individual, not the party label. I've worked very hard, as has all of my office staff. We believe we put Utah first in everything we do."

But aside from Matheson's popularity, "Bush is dragging down every Republican officeholder in the nation, even here," said Jones, who has polled in Utah for 30 years and is a professor of political science at the University of Utah.

Bush has hit record-low job approval ratings across the nation, getting only a 37 or 38 percent approval rating in national polls.

The president remains popular in Utah, however, getting a 61 percent approval rating in Jones' latest poll. But that is still 13 percentage points lower than a Jones poll conducted in June this year.

Matheson's numbers, however, especially for a Democrat, are astronomic — a 78 percent approval rating.

Only 12 percent of 2nd District residents disapprove of the job Matheson is doing in the U.S. House. Ten percent didn't have an opinion.

Jones polled 400 adults across the state on the statewide offices, like president, U.S. Senate and governor, for a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percent. He polled around 140 residents in each of the three congressional districts, a margin of error of around 8 percent.

Huntsman is close to Matheson — 76 percent of Utahns approve of the governor's job performance.

Hatch and Bennett are both at 67 percent approval; 3rd District Rep. Chris Cannon has 50 percent approval; and 1st District Rep. Rob Bishop has 49 percent.

First elected in 2002, Bishop is the Utah delegation's invisible man. Jones found that 37 percent of his constituents don't know what kind of a job he's doing.

"Jim Hansen used to say that in Congress there are work horses and show horses. Rob is a work horse, just like Jim was, and doesn't worry too much about poll numbers or popularity," said Bishop spokesman Scott Parker. "There are plenty of show horses here in D.C., but Rob is definitely more interested in getting things done than in getting credit."

Parker said a separate, independent survey found Bishop receives less media coverage than anyone else in Utah's congressional delegation, "so these numbers seem to be consistent with that. We generally maintain a pretty low profile, and Rob has been here a shorter period of time than the rest."

for Cannon, he is already being challenged within his party by a Utah County GOP millionaire. And Cannon's 34 percent disapproval rating overall is not a good number for the incumbent, although only 19 percent of Republicans don't like the job Cannon is doing.

Joe Hunter, Cannon's chief of staff, said the poll numbers "are not surprising . . . considering the fact that a little more than a year ago, several hundred thousand dollars were being spent rather harshly attacking Congressman Cannon, that money being spent by out-of-state anti-immigration groups."

Also, Hunter said, the fact that only 19 percent of Republicans do not approve of Cannon's efforts "would indicate that we remain strong with our Republican base."

True, the 2nd District may not be as Republican-voting as the 1st and 3rd Districts, but, points out Jones, it is still heavily GOP — stretching as it does from the east side of Salt Lake County into northeastern Utah County, around the eastern and southeastern part of the state to include St. George and Cedar City.

Listen to these numbers: Two-thirds of Republicans like the job Matheson is doing; 91 percent of Democrats approve of his job performance; 83 percent of independents approve of him.

Only 17 percent of Republicans — the guys from his opposing party — disapprove of how he's doing his job. Only 9 percent each of Democrats and independents give Matheson a thumbs down.

The rural part of Matheson's district is heavily Republican and LDS. Jones found that, across the district, 82 percent of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints approve of Matheson. Off the Wasatch Front, Matheson has an 84 percent approval rating.

"These kinds of numbers will make it difficult for anyone to beat (Matheson) next year" in the 2006 U.S. House elections, Jones said.

Matheson said he has "a little over $500,000" in his campaign account.

Republicans have yet to find a well-known candidate to stand against him, although Utah County businessman/consultant Joe Tucker has filed Federal Election Commission reports as a Republican. The official candidate filing deadline is mid-March.

Matheson spokeswoman Alyson Heyrend says KSL Radio talk show host Doug Wright has reportedly recently visited Washington, D.C., to explore a GOP bid. Wright couldn't be reached for comment.

And Utah House Rep. LaVar Christensen, R-Draper, has told the newspaper he is seriously pondering a run.

Spencer Jenkins, executive director of the Utah Republican Party, said of Matheson's high approval ratings: "When you are a congressman in the minority party and not engaged in the key issues, your favorableness will be higher.

"Next March or April, you will not see his approval ratings nearly as high. President Bush has had his troubles, and there is some trickle-down effect" on Utah's GOP delegation's poll numbers, Jenkins said.

Comment on this story

Hatch is up for re-election to a sixth term in 2006. His job approval ratings may be down 5 percentage points since June not only because of Bush's problems. He was challenged this summer by state Rep. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George. Urquhart just got out of the race last week, but his criticisms of Hatch could have harmed Hatch's job approval as well.

Finally, not only do most Utahns — 61 percent — still approve of the job the president is doing, 57 percent also approve of the way he is handling the war in Iraq. Across the nation, most Americans disapprove of his administration's actions in Iraq, national polls show.


Contributing: Zack Van Eyck

E-mail: bbjr@desnews.com