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As he enters his first re-election campaign, Sen. Mike Lee has seen his approval rating stagnate at below 50 percent.

In most instances this would be a major problem, signaling weakness that would attract challengers. But so far, no Republican wants to take him on. He faces one inexperienced Democrat in Jonathan Swinton, who owns a marriage-counseling company.

"I think, in large part, it looks like Senator Lee has dodged a bullet here," said University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank.

A new Salt Lake Tribune/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll shows that while Lee may not face a daunting road to re-election, he's far from beloved. Overall, 45 percent of Utahns approved of his job performance and 37 percent disapproved. That left 18 percent who said they were not sure. Among just Republicans, his approval rating jumped to 65 percent, though with independents he received the support of only 38 percent.

Burbank said for a "conservative Republican senator from a conservative Republican state" to not reach at least 50 percent "is a bit of a surprise."

And yet the Tribune/Hinckley Institute numbers are roughly the same as a November poll commissioned by Morning Consult, a Washington-based news outlet, in which Lee received 46 percent.

The first-term senator also received 46 percent in the August version of the Utah Voter Poll, conducted by Brigham Young University, which tracks people identified in exit polls over numerous years.

Lee's campaign strategist Boyd Matheson brushed aside the poll numbers, saying the senator is more concerned about the economy, health care and the role of the federal government.

"He continues to believe that good principles and good policies ultimately result in good politics," said Matheson, noting that Lee is part of a bipartisan group working with President Barack Obama on criminal-justice reform.

Swinton, a first-time candidate, said he believes Lee has hit on a few areas where he can compromise because of the 2016 election.

"I think, generally speaking, it is more of a strategic thing than a real shift in how he is working," said Swinton, who considers Lee a divisive political figure.

He pointed to a bipartisan education bill, supported by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, but opposed by Lee, as one example where he believes Lee is out of step with most Utahns.

Burbank suggested the state's voters most likely link Lee to the partial government shutdown of 2013, which he helped lead.

And the professor said Lee's efforts to display a more positive policy agenda or areas of compromise haven't yet reached the wider public.

Burbank remains baffled that Lee didn't face a challenge from a prominent political figure, especially when many were rumored to consider a race last year. People such as Rep. Jason Chaffetz; Josh Romney, the son of former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney; former Utah Republican Party Chairman Thomas Wright; and former Hinckley Institute Director Kirk Jowers all considered a challenge before declining.

Zions Bank CEO Scott Anderson commissioned a series of polls to find a challenger against Lee. When that failed, Anderson ended up endorsing the senator, as did former Gov. Jon Huntsman, moves that seemed to end any chance that a big-name Republican would enter the race.

The Tribune/Hinckley Institute poll was conducted by SurveyUSA from Jan. 6 to 13 and included 989 registered voters. It had a margin of error of 3.2 percentage points.

Mike Lee poll results