Huh: Evan McMullin 33, Orrin Hatch 29 in three-way Utah Senate poll

There are at least three good reasons not to focus too much on the McMullin/Hatch dynamic here. Instead focus on the more basic fact that Utah voters seem verrrrrry ready for fresh blood in the Senate. Remember, a different poll taken a few months ago found Hatch trailing Jon Huntsman 62/21 head-to-head in a hypothetical primary. That wasn’t so much a pro-Huntsman result, though, as an anti-Hatch one: Fully 78 percent(!) said that that Hatch “definitely” (58) or “probably” (20) shouldn’t run for an eighth term.

Prediction: We’ll see some new stories next week about Mitch McConnell, and maybe Donald Trump, leaning on Mitt Romney to try to elbow Hatch into retirement.

The Centrist Project, which is recruiting candidates to run for Senate and state legislatures in 2018, commissioned the survey to gauge Utahns’ opinions on several issues and the viability of an independent candidate in the upcoming Senate race.

The poll by JMC Analytics found 33 percent of residents would vote for McMullin, 29 percent for Hatch and 11 percent for an unnamed Democrat if the election were held today. Another 10 percent favored someone else, and 17 percent were undecided.

Asked whether Hatch deserves to be re-elected or if it’s time for someone new, only 21 percent of Utahns chose the seven-term senator, while 68 percent want someone new, according the poll.

Good news for McMullin? I guess, but then there are those three reasons for skepticism. One: The group that sponsored this poll has an agenda, “to persuade elected Democrats and Republicans to abandon their party affiliations in hopes of finding common-ground solutions to the nation’s problems” in the words of the Deseret News. What luck that their data has a would-be independent ahead of the Republican dinosaur. Two: How much is any head-to-head poll worth when nearly a third are in the “don’t know/someone else” column and another 10 percent support a generic Democratic candidate? What would happen to Hatch’s numbers when the Republican establishment inevitably showered him with cash to block the Trump-hating conservative McMullin from ascending to the Senate? Three: There’s less reason than ever to believe that McMullin will challenge Hatch now that Jason Chaffetz is vacating his House seat. McMullin said last month that he’d consider primarying either of them; now, with Chaffetz retiring, he doesn’t need to. McMullin did particularly well last November in a key part of Chaffetz’s district too, pulling 30 percent of the vote against Trump and Clinton in the county that includes Provo. (That was nine points better than he did statewide.) If he’s hellbent on getting to Washington, running for the House in the 3rd District, where he’s apt to have the highest name recognition in the field, is a safer bet than challenging a household name like Hatch for Senate.

Plus, I’ll repeat what I said last month: McMullin against Hatch would risk shifting the focus from Hatch’s long tenure to Trump’s short tenure. If the electorate is strongly anti-Hatch, why would you want to do that?

If you want to unseat an 83-year-old who’s been in the Senate for ages, the smart play would seem to be to turn the primary into a referendum on him. We need fresh blood; you can’t drain the swamp with people who’ve been swamp-dwellers for decades in charge. Anyone but Hatch! Make the primary all about the incumbent and you might catch populist lightning in a bottle… McMullin’s problem is that he’s spent so much of his time in public bashing Trump that a Hatch/McMullin contest would likely become a referendum on Trump. And as I say, Trump’s numbers in Utah aren’t bad. Absent a spectacular collapse in his public support nationally over the next two years, Republican voters in a Republican state are going to give a vote of confidence to a Republican president if a local primary becomes a proxy fight over his agenda.

McMullin would end up re-framing his Trump-bashing as an attack on Hatch by tying Hatch to Trump, which wouldn’t be hard, but he’s still left with the same problem. If the race boils down to “pro-Trump versus anti-Trump,” a red state — even one lukewarm about Trump, like Utah — is likely to go with the former. The question is, if McMullin ends up passing on a Senate run, who’s left to primary Hatch? Chaffetz has said he won’t run for anything in 2018; Romney’s not going to run unless Hatch steps aside first; and Huntsman has already been drafted into the Trump administration as ambassador to Russia. McMullin may be the only conservative in Utah with both the motive and the name recognition to take him on and stand a chance of winning. And now, thanks to Chaffetz’s vacancy, it almost certainly won’t happen. An eighth term for Orrin it is!

Update: Ah, here’s something I didn’t notice at first about the Centrist Project, the group that sponsored this poll: Their “senior strategist,” Joel Searby, is the former chief strategist for — ta da — McMullin 2016. So, yeah.

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