Can Evan McMullin ride anti-Trump coalition to Senate win in Utah?

Rick Bowmer/AP
Independent Evan McMullin poses for photographs during a campaign event Thursday, Oct. 20, 2022, in Salt Lake City. The race for Utah's U.S. Senate seat is the most competitive the reliably red state has seen in decades. Republican Sen. Mike Lee acknowledges that his race with Mr. McMullin will likely be close. The race has taken shape as a referendum on the direction former President Donald Trump has taken the GOP.
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Utah has elected only Republicans to the Senate since 1972. But this year, incumbent GOP Sen. Mike Lee is facing a rough reelection road. His opponent is not a Democrat, but an independent: former CIA officer Evan McMullin.

Mr. McMullin made his name as an anti-Trump conservative presidential candidate in 2016. He did relatively well in Utah, his home state, and now is trying to unseat Senator Lee with an unusual coalition of Democrats, independents, and moderate Republicans.

Why We Wrote This

America seems split into two rigid partisan camps. Is it possible, in the right place, with the right issues, to dissolve this model and form coalitions with previously antithetical groups of voters? In Utah, one candidate is trying to do just that.

Utah is a place where such a coalition could work. Democrats, facing the reality of a ruby red state, have declined to field a Senate candidate this year, and are supporting Mr. McMullin instead. Meanwhile, many Utah Republicans, even the most conservative, remain uncomfortable with former President Donald Trump.

Senator Lee is a staunch Trump ally, and Mr. McMullin has sought to frame him as an extremist who tried to help efforts to reverse Mr. Trump’s defeat in 2020.

Senator Lee remains the favorite in the race. A University of Utah/Deseret News poll in early October put him ahead, 41% to 37% among likely voters.

But 12% of voters, including many moderate Republicans, remained undecided, according to the poll.

Late afternoon sun glints off mountaintops dusted with the season’s first snowfall as costumed children parade up and down Alpine’s main street. They’re collecting candy and other handouts from stalls run by local businesses in an annual Halloween-related event run by the Chamber of Commerce.

Early voting is also underway in Utah. And while Halloween comes around every year, the 2022 midterms feature something rarely seen in this state: a competitive race in a general election.

The last time ruby-red Utah sent a non-Republican to the U.S. Senate was 1972, but this year two-term GOP Sen. Mike Lee is facing a close reelection race.

Why We Wrote This

America seems split into two rigid partisan camps. Is it possible, in the right place, with the right issues, to dissolve this model and form coalitions with previously antithetical groups of voters? In Utah, one candidate is trying to do just that.

His main opponent isn’t a Democrat, but an independent, Evan McMullin, who made his name in 2016 as an anti-Trump conservative presidential candidate. He lost, of course, but in Utah, where Donald Trump’s peccadillos and policies went down poorly, he received one-fifth of votes cast.

Now Mr. McMullin, a former CIA officer, is trying to unseat Mr. Lee with a coalition of Democrats, independents, and moderate Republicans. One lane is wide open: the state’s Democratic Party chose not to field a candidate and instead to support Mr. McMullin. What’s surprising, and possibly a harbinger of future intra-GOP ruptures, is the number of Republicans in suburbs like Alpine who may shun Mr. Lee, in large part because of his closeness to Trump.

That makes Mr. McMullin’s unlikely candidacy a test of how far an anti-Trump centrist coalition can go in a conservative state that puts great stock in moral character and public service. It comes at a time of rising concern about antidemocratic movements in other Western states like Arizona and Nevada where prominent Trump-endorsed election deniers are on the ballot. Mr. McMullin has sought to cast Mr. Lee as an extremist who tried to reverse Mr. Trump’s defeat in 2020; Mr. Lee, a lawyer, insists that he simply offered legal advice to the then-president.

The lack of fealty to Mr. Trump among Republicans in Utah makes its Senate race something of an outlier, says Matthew Burbank, a politics professor at the University of Utah. “I don’t think there’s many other places where you’d have this kind of dynamic,” he says. “Many [Utah] Republicans, even conservative Republicans, really never were comfortable with Trump. They wouldn’t come out and say that but privately they’d say, ‘I just don’t like the guy.’”

Rare strategic voting

Another factor that is hard to replicate is Democratic support at the expense of their own candidate. Strategic voting, even in a race that a party has no chance of winning, remains rare in U.S. politics. Parties and candidates exist to contest for power, not stand by and watch.

Take Montana’s new 2nd Congressional District, where Gary Buchanan, a former state official in Democratic and Republican administrations, is running as an independent against Matt Rosendale, a pro-Trump Republican. But since Democrats have their own candidate in the race, it’s proving harder for Mr. Buchanan to build a winning centrist coalition.

Mr. Lee is still favored to win reelection in Utah. An early October poll by the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics and the Deseret News put Mr. Lee ahead of Mr. McMullin by 41%-37% among likely voters, with 12% undecided. (Two other candidates are on the ballot.)

Around a quarter of those undecided voters identified as moderate Republicans, a crucial constituency in this race, says Jason Perry, who directs the Hinckley Institute. “It’s that movable middle right now which is proving to be the battleground for these two candidates,” he says.

Should Mr. McMullin pull off an upset victory, his could potentially be the decisive vote in an evenly divided chamber. He says he wouldn’t caucus with either party. But that leaves open the possibility that his vote, or non-vote, decides who becomes the Senate Majority Leader.

“If he does win and he becomes that one vote that everyone wants, then his strategy will have worked. He’ll be the vote that people are seeking. [But] if the Republicans have a majority where that one vote is not needed, it changes his value proposition,” says Mr. Perry, who previously worked in Republican administrations in Utah.

Rick Bowmer/AP
Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee, left, and his independent challenger Evan McMullin face off during a televised debate Monday, Oct. 17, 2022, in Orem, Utah, three weeks before Election Day.

Mr. Lee has the support of Utah’s Republican leadership, with one notable exception: Sen. Mitt Romney. Republicans say Mr. Romney doesn’t offer endorsements so his refusal to do so this time, even after Mr. Lee asked publicly for his support, shouldn’t be overinterpreted. But Mr. McMullin’s supporters have made hay from the neutrality of Mr. Romney, who was among seven Republicans who voted to impeach Trump after the Jan. 6 attacks.

In a televised Oct. 17 debate, Mr. Lee called Mr. McMullin an “opportunistic gadfly supported by the Democratic Party” who voted in 2020 for President Biden and his expansive federal programs. He argued that Mr. McMullin can’t be trusted to resist a Democratic agenda and pointed to his own voting record in Congress against major spending bills.

Even among Republicans not totally sold on Mr. Lee, that is a potent line of attack.

“I do like Evan,” says Maureen Lifton, a retiree who had joined her family at Alpine’s trick-or-treat event. “But I don’t like the fact that he’s supported by the Democratic Party.”

She described herself as a former Democrat who leans Republican and plans to vote for Mr. Lee so he could stand up to wasteful government spending.

But Laura, a mother of six who was taking a food break in a playground, said she would be voting against Mr. Lee. As a moderate Republican, she was disappointed that Becky Edwards, a GOP state lawmaker, failed to beat Mr. Lee in Utah’s primary in June. Ms. Edwards had attacked Mr. Lee over his efforts to overturn Trump’s election defeat.

This issue vexed Laura, who declined to give her family name. “I’m not on board with any of that, no way,” she says.

Attitudes among Mormons

Another reason she cited for voting for Mr. McMullin was Mr. Lee’s praise for Mr. Trump in 2020 when he compared the president to Captain Moroni, a scriptural hero in the Book of Mormon. Like many in Alpine, 30 miles south of Salt Lake City, she belongs to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Both Mr. Lee and Mr. McMullin are members of the church, which has long been hugely influential in the state.

Republicans admit that the Moroni controversy, which Mr. McMullin has used in attack ads, dented Mr. Lee’s image among suburban Utah soccer moms. Trump is broadly unpopular with Mormons, particularly younger voters. While he carried Utah in 2020, Mr. Trump barely won a majority nationally among Mormons under 40, according to the 2020 Cooperative Election Study. (He won 80% of votes cast by Mormons over 40.)

It’s not just Mr. Trump’s character flaws that turn off Mormon voters, says Robert Saldin, a politics professor at the University of Montana and director of its Ethics and Public Affairs Program. Mr. Trump’s campaign in 2016 that targeted immigrants and Muslims also landed badly among a religious minority attuned to persecution. Mormons “have a shared history of how things can go really, really wrong, how they can be scapegoated and demonized,” says Professor Saldin, co-author of “Never Trump: The Revolt of the Conservative Elites.” “There was always significant resistance within the Mormon community to Trump.”

This resistance helped propel Mr. McMullin’s presidential run in 2016. As a conservative, he got protest votes from Republicans who didn’t support Mr. Trump. Among them was Mike Lee, who was first elected to the Senate in 2010 and became known for carrying a copy of the constitution that he often brandished when he railed against excessive government power.

Mr. Lee subsequently allied himself with Mr. Trump and was active in the effort to overturn the 2020 election. In a text message sent to White House chief of staff Mark Meadows released by the House panel investigating January 6th, Mr. Lee offered to assemble a group of “ready and loyal advocates who will go to bat” for Mr. Trump. He also backed a scheme for state legislators to endorse alternate pro-Trump electors for the congressional tally of electoral votes.

In their debate, Mr. Lee claimed he never supported “fake electors” and had voted to certify Joe Biden’s victory. “I was one of the people trying to stop this from happening,” he said. Mr. McMullin accused him of working with the White House to subvert the will of voters. “When the barbarians were at the gate you were happy to let them in,” he said.

Tactical alliance

The repeated exchanges between the two candidates over the events leading up to Jan. 6 reflect the salience of democracy, and the threats to it, in Utah’s race. To Democrats who fret about the antidemocratic strain in Republican politics, this is justification for their tactical alliance with Mr. McMullin, an anti-abortion conservative and foreign policy hawk.

“There’s too much at stake for us to do anything different,” says Ben McAdams, a former Democratic congressman from Utah who supports Mr. McMullin. “He’s not someone we’re going to agree with 100% of the time. But he’s got integrity.”

Mr. McAdams said he expected a strong turnout at the polls. “I think Utah Democrats and moderate Republicans have always felt that our votes don’t matter,” he says. “People have gotten really excited and rallied behind Evan McMullin.”

Cole Adley is among them. He lives in Park City and runs a horse farm, but his family is in Alpine so he joined them for an afternoon of trick-or-treating. He leans left, but is happy to elect a conservative like Mr. McMullin to Congress, given Utah’s choices. “As long as we aim left, we’re doing OK,” he says.

At the playground, Ashton Lin watched his two children go down a slide. He’s a Mormon who grew up in Asia before moving to the U.S., which he says gives him a different perspective on politics. He jokes that he and his wife, who’s South Korean, are the “one percent” Asian in their census tract.

A Republican voter, he’s also open to the idea of an independent representing Utah. “I think it meets the new needs of our generation,” he says. But it depends on the candidate, and he may swing back to Mr. Lee. “I’m just looking for rational thought,” he says. 

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