SALT LAKE CITY — Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, would have a fight on his hands in his re-election bid if Josh Romney, the son of former presidential candidate Mitt Romney, gets in the race, according to a poll released Wednesday.
The UtahPolicy.com poll by Dan Jones & Associates found that 37 percent of voters wanted Lee as the Republican Party's nominee in 2016, while 30 percent chose Josh Romney, and 26 percent were undecided.
The only other option offered in the poll as a possible Republican party nominee in the Senate race, former state GOP Chairman Thomas Wright, was supported by 5 percent of respondents.
The same poll put former Utah Rep. Jim Matheson, who did not seek re-election in 2012, at the top of the list of Democratic candidates for the Senate seat, with the support of 51 percent of voters.
The poll, conducted March 30-April 7 of 600 registered voters in Utah with a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent, comes as most would-be challengers to a second term for Lee have decided against a run.
Lee senior adviser Boyd Matheson said the senator isn't paying attention to polls.
"To be honest, the only numbers Sen. Lee is concerned about right now are the number of Utahns being hurt by the failed policies of this administration," Matheson said, as well as those who will benefit from his "positive agenda."
In an article in Politico late last year, Jon Huntsman Sr. called Lee an "embarrassment" to the state because of his role in the 2013 federal government shutdown that cost Utah millions of dollars.
That same article said Zions Bank CEO Scott Anderson and other establishment Republicans were looking to replace Lee as the party's nominee in 2016 from a list that included Josh Romney, who has lived in Utah for the past decade.
Now, Anderson and another name from the list of possible Senate candidates, former Utah governor and presidential candidate Jon Huntsman Jr., are serving as co-chairman of Lee's re-election campaign.
Josh Romney was on a family vacation and had no comment on the poll. But while the real estate investor and parent of six young children has not ruled out following in his father's footsteps by running for office, he doesn't seem to be in a hurry.
"I'm not taking politics off the table," Josh Romney said in a Feb. 19 podcast of "The Michael McCarlie Show." "I likely will get involved at some point in some capacity. Probably nothing soon."
Kirk Jowers, head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics, said he doesn't think the Romney son will run even though his name recognition would make him a strong candidate.
"He doesn't seem interested. He hasn't formally taken himself out, but he's definitely the last man standing who would be a tough foe for Mike Lee," said Jowers, who himself had been mentioned as a GOP challenger to Lee.
Jowers said he's not going to run and said Lee's ability to add potential competitors to his re-election team "probably makes Lee that much more indestructible" in next year's election.
At the same time, Jowers said, the likelihood Lee will be the GOP nominee might make the race more attractive to Democrats, who haven't won a statewide race since former Attorney General Jan Graham won re-election in 1996.
"The demographics are very different. What you need are negatives on the Republican," Jowers said. "Mike Lee has consistently had the highest negatives of the elected officials in Utah."
Still, Jowers said he doesn't expect Matheson to run next year.
Matheson did not return calls for comment. He has joined a high-profile Washington, D.C., law firm and was announced late last month as a new member of the board of directors of Sallie Mae, a student loan company.
But Doug Owens, the Democrat who ran against Rep. Mia Love, R-Utah, for Matheson's seat last year, said he has not ruled out running for Senate next year. He has previously said he would consider a rematch against Love in 2016 .
"I am considering all the options and not taking anything off the table," Owens said. "The race most attractive to me is the one where I can have the most impact and that includes the ability to win."
Owens was backed in the new UtahPolicy.com poll by 14 percent of the voters polled, behind the 21 percent who said they were undecided about the best choice for the party's nominee.
Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, the other Democrat whose name was included in the poll as a possible party nominee, was supported by 11 percent of voters.
McAdams, who will be up for re-election as mayor in 2016, said he's not looking at the Senate race.
"At this point, I plan to run for re-election. I like my job, and I feel like I have more to give," the county leader said. "But I would love to see somebody like Jim Matheson or Doug Owens run."
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