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Public opinion of Sen. Mike Lee has rebounded, according to a new poll released Monday that found 54 percent of likely voters have a favorable view of his job performance.
Last October, the senator's approval rating was just 40 percent in a poll conducted during the 16-day government shutdown, which Lee's actions helped spark.
His improved position can be attributed to a few factors, according to University of Utah political scientist Matthew Burbank.
"As odd as it sounds, one of the things that's going on is he hasn't been in the news lately," Burbank said. "When he was in the news in the past, it tended to be around issues like the shutdown, which were broadly unpopular."
Lee, R-Utah, championed a strategy to block any government funding bill until the Democrats' relented and cut all funding to the Affordable Care Act. This led to infighting among Republicans and an eventual showdown with President Barack Obama and the Democrats, who wouldn't budge. The impasse led to a 16-day partial shutdown, which opinion polls show most blamed on Republicans.
Burbank said it's predicable that distance from that shutdown has resulted in less anger toward Utah's junior senator.
"There is always a dissipation as we get farther away from th ose events," he said.
The new UtahPolicy/Zions Bank poll found that 22 percent of voters say their view of Lee's performance was highly favorable and 32 percent said somewhat favorable. The poll found that 35 percent had an unfavorable view of Lee and 11 percent had no opinion.
The same poll, which has a margin of error of 4.88 percentage points, found that 71 percent approve of the job performance of Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, a percentage that has largely held firm in recent years.
Lee, who is up for re-election in 2016, has sought to shed the obstructionist label by spending the past year arguing that Republicans need an affirmative agenda that helps middle-class families and lifts up the poor. His ideas include a boost to the tax credit for raising children, accreditation of alternative higher education programs and allowing states to receive most of the federal gas tax. He has given a series of speeches on the Senate floor and in front of conservative groups on these ideas. Burbank said it's unlikely that this new posture would result in a big boost in public opinion, but it likely has some effect.
And Lee recently held an event with the Salt Lake Chamber focused on government regulations, a sign he is trying to mend fences with the business community that opposed the shutdown and disagrees with his stance against a comprehensive immigration-reform bill.
"The fact that the effort is there is an indication that he is at least thinking about where he's going to be positioned in the next election," Burbank said.
Lee may see challenges from both sides next year. On the Democratic side, Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, has said he'd consider a Senate run and on the Republican side, three names are most often floated. They are Josh Romney, the son of former presidential candidate Mitt Romney, former Utah Republican Party Chairman Thomas Wright and former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist.