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Whether it's because they are Republicans in a heavily GOP state, wield power impressively or benefit from gerrymandering, a new poll shows incumbent U.S. Reps. Rob Bishop, Jason Chaffetz and Chris Stewart are leading by huge margins.
Specifically, a new Salt Lake Tribune-Hinckley Institute of Politics survey shows that:
• Bishop leads physician Peter Clemens 58 percent to 21 percent, up 37 points, in the 1st Congressional District.
• Chaffetz leads former Overstock.com Vice President Stephen Tryon by a whopping 72 percent to 18 percent 54 points in the 3rd Congressional District.
• Stewart leads businesswoman Charlene Albarran 58 percent to 27 percent in the 2nd Congressional District, up 31 points.
As was earlier reported, GOP Rep. Mia Love leads Democrat Doug Owens by 12 points, 50 percent to 38 percent, in the 4th Congressional District. The poll in the 1st, 2nd and 3rd districts interviewed about 200 voters in each district and has a margin of error of plus or minus 6.9 percentage points. It was conducted by Dan Jones & Associates from Oct. 20 to 27.
On the day before the end of that polling period, both Chaffetz and Stewart announced they would vote for Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump despite urging him earlier to drop out of the race after the release of a tape showing him bragging about forcing himself on women. Stewart even once called Trump "our Mussolini." But both congressmen enjoy such large margins that the move appears unlikely to hurt them.
Michael Lyons, a political scientist at Utah State University, said the large leads demonstrate "a classic advantaged incumbent against a weak-challenger situation that you find in roughly 75-80 percent of the districts in the United States."
He said the Democratic challengers face steep odds in Utah's congressional races.
"Voters are strongly Republican, and it's very hard for Democratic candidates to even get a foothold for funding," Lyons said. For example, Chaffetz amassed 33 times as much money as his opponent; Bishop raised 11 times more; Stewart collected twice as much.
Also, Albarran and Tryon each provided 91 percent of their campaign funds out of their own pockets. For Albarran, that was more than $401,000. For Tryon, it was about $36,000.
"Incumbents have name recognition," Lyons said. "They say they have power to do things, and challengers just can't make that claim."
Chaffetz, for example, touts his chairmanship of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and its investigations into Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton that have put him in the national spotlight.
"Utahns know Washington, D.C., is a mess, and hopefully know I'm fighting to clean it up," he said in response to the new poll.
Similarly, Bishop plugs his chairmanship of the House Natural Resources Committee and the opportunities that provides to give Utah more control over public lands. His campaign manager, Andy Pierucci, said Bishop's strong support in the poll comes "because he represents the values and views of a majority of the district."
Lyons also said Utah's congressional districts are gerrymandered or drawn to help one party but "not in a conventional way. In fact, if anything, the gerrymandering of the state dilutes the Republican strength a little bit."
He said in classic gerrymandering, the majority party would try to pack all the votes of the opposition into one district or a small number of them conceding a loss there, but then allowing wins by comfortable margins elsewhere.
Lyons said that after the 2010 census, Utah Republicans could have attempted that by packing most of the state's Democratic votes into the 2nd District then represented by Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson.
Instead, "They took his old district and cracked it into parts to try to capture all four districts simultaneously," resulting in close elections in the newly created 4th District ever since, Lyons said. "Things would be even more lopsided [in the other three districts] if Republicans had gerrymandered in the classic sense."
Despite the big poll margins, Republicans and Democrats are vowing to work hard for votes in the days remaining before the election.
"We are still taking nothing for granted," said Tim Robinson, campaign manager for Stewart.
"Of course, we're not conceding or giving up," Albarron, Stewart's opponent, said. She adds that Democrats have been voting in high numbers in Salt Lake County, "and that helps us" and gives hope.
"This year, there is a more compelling reason for people to do their homework," said Tryon, "and if anyone bothers to even take a cursory look at me versus Chaffetz, well, that should be really good for me and really bad for him."
Patty Halling, campaign manager for Clemens, said, "65 percent of the people who watched his debate [with Bishop] said Peter was the clear winner. The Tribune endorsed him as has the [Ogden] Standard-Examiner, so we have some really good things happening."