SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert would win a GOP primary election, a new poll shows, but it might be a different story if Utah's lone Democrat in Congress, Jim Matheson, gets in the race.
A Deseret News/KSL-TV poll found that 48 percent of registered voters in Utah surveyed would vote for Herbert while 45 percent would cast their ballots for Matheson.
If Herbert were to be challenged in a GOP primary, he'd beat an unnamed opponent 54 percent to 23 percent among respondents who said they'd likely vote in that election.
Dan Jones & Associates polled 406 registered voters statewide June 13-15 for the newspaper and television station. Their results have a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percent.
So far, Herbert is unopposed in his re-election bid. But Matheson has said if he doesn’t seek a seventh term next year, he'll run against either Herbert or Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.
Several Republicans are also eying the race, including former lawmaker Craig Frank, who served as a state representative from Cedar Hills until he discovered he lived outside his district's boundaries.
Pollster Dan Jones said Herbert's numbers against an unnamed challenger are "very good. He should be very pleased with that. Still, there's a long time before the filing deadline and things could change."
Jones said in a matchup against Matheson, Republicans will turn out for Herbert, especially if either Mitt Romney or former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. is at the top of the ticket as the GOP's nominee for president.
"Republicans won't want to lose because they know having a Republican governor is very, very important," Jones said.
The governor's spokeswoman, Ally Isom, said Herbert is "very encouraged. These are healthy numbers and it's no surprise — Congressman Matheson polls well as a candidate for any elected office for which he would run."
She said right now, the governor "is not focused on running; he's focused on leading," and cited his efforts on the economy, energy development and education.
Matheson declined to comment on the poll, his spokeswoman, Alyson Heyrend, said. The congressman had also declined to comment on poll results released earlier that showed him tied with Hatch in a potential Senate race.
State Democratic Party Chairman Wayne Holland said he wasn't surprised at Matheson's showing in the poll.
"It never surprises me that Jim Matheson polls well and basically will poll even with any of the top elected Republicans in the state," Holland said. "He has done a remarkable job for over a decade of being a voice of reason."
Holland said Utah's Democrats "would love to see Jim in a statewide election because we think he would win." The last Utah Democrat elected to statewide office was former Attorney General Jan Graham in 1998.
Matheson's late father, Scott Matheson, was Utah's last Democratic governor. Matheson's brother, Scott Matheson Jr., ran unsuccessfully as a Democrat for governor in 2004.
Kirk Jowers, head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics and an adviser to Herbert, said Matheson "is obviously the most daunting challenger any Republican could have."
Even so, Jowers said, "any Democrat starts off at a huge disadvantage in Utah just because of the sheer numbers of Republicans versus Democrats."
Matheson has been able to overcome that imbalance to keep his GOP-leaning District 2 seat in Congress over the years. But Herbert proved in the 2010 governor's race he could defeat a popular Democrat.32 comments on this story
That Democrat, Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon, lost even in his home county to Herbert in last November's special election for the remaining two years of Huntsman's term.
Corroon was ranked near Matheson as "the toughest opponent Herbert could possibly have and he beat him by margins bigger than anyone could have predicted," Jowers said. "So Gov. Herbert is a very adept campaigner. It will not be an easy decision for anyone to decide to challenge him."