SALT LAKE CITY — While liberals are howling at Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, for voting against his party's health care reform bill, most Utahns apparently are cheering him.
They just gave him the highest job performance rating of anyone in Utah's congressional delegation, where he is the lone Democrat, according to a new Deseret News/KSL poll.
Besides that, Matheson's approval rating is two to three times higher than what Utahns gave to national Democratic leaders, including President Barack Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
"I'm gratified that the numbers are that high," Matheson said. "I know there is a lot of concern across the political spectrum about incumbents these days. Hopefully, this reflects that people support how I conduct myself, that I look at the merits and make decisions based on that."
The statewide poll by Dan Jones & Associates on Monday — a day after Congress passed the reform bill — showed that 64 percent of Utahns said they strongly or somewhat approve of Matheson's performance, 27 percent somewhat or strongly disapprove and 8 percent were undecided.
That 64-27 support ratio was the best in the congressional delegation and just a shade better than the 64-30 ratio of Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.
Matheson's numbers flew into the stratosphere compared with ratings of the national leaders of his party.
Only 30 percent of Utahns approved of Obama's job performance, and 69 percent disapproved. The approval-disapproval ratio for Pelosi was an even-worse 21-72, and it was 25-55 for Reid.
When looking at respondents in just Matheson's 2nd House District and not the entire state, his numbers drop a bit. Of his constituents, 57 percent approve of his job performance, compared with 39 percent who disapprove.
And in a weird situation for any politician, his performance rating is higher among members of the opposing party and independents than it is among his own party. His approval-to-disapproval rating is 57-28 among Democrats, 64-28 among Republicans and 69-24 among independents.
"That is a little unusual," Matheson said, laughing. "I think it shows that people are looking for an independent voice in Washington these days. The partisanship is turning off a lot of people. I have always said that I am an independent voice representing Utah."
Matheson said he realizes many Democrats and liberals are upset with his vote on health care, but he said he believes most of his constituents approve of his vote.
"When you represent 900,000 people, and there's passion on all sides of the issue, not everyone is going to be happy, and I respect that," he said.
While Matheson has high ratings after being long-undecided about the reform bill but ultimately opposing it, Sen. Bob Bennett received fairly poor ratings after fighting the reform bill all along.
Bennett, a three-term incumbent, is facing seven GOP challengers this year who contend he is not conservative enough, plus two Democrats and a member of the Constitution Party.
Only 54 percent of Utahns said they approve of Bennett's job performance, while 37 percent disapprove and 5 percent were undecided. The approval rating was down by four points since the last time the Deseret News asked that question in December.
It comes after Bennett has been attacked in ads by the Club for Growth, a national conservative group, that often claimed he was too supportive of Democratic reform efforts, and some recent "push polling" telemarketing by the conservative Common Sense Issue PAC also contending Bennett is too soft on reform.
"I think it's primarily Club for Growth," Bennett said, explaining his low numbers. "It is an opponent who has no physical presence in Utah. So you can't talk back to them like I can to one of my flesh and blood opponents. And they have attacked me in a very distortive and improper way, knowing they can get away with it.
"With the kind of attacks they have made, I'm actually surprised my rating is as high as it is," he said.
The job approval-to-disapproval ratio for other members of the Utah delegation was 55-21 (with a large 25 percent undecided) for Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, and 48-18 (with an even larger 34 percent undecided) for Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah.
Their approval ratings are relatively low and come after Bishop and Chaffetz were among the loudest critics of health reform in Congress. However, their disapproval ratings are low, while the numbers of respondents who were undecided about them is large.
The poll conducted 406 interviews Monday and has a sampling error of plus or minus 5 percentage points.