Oct 17, 2022 - Politics

Independent Senate candidate Evan McMullin aims for historic win in deep-red Utah

Photo illustration collage of Evan McMullin surrounded by ballot elements.

Photo Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios. Photo: George Frey/Getty Images.

In the aftermath of the Jan. 6 insurrection, Evan McMullin says he knew he needed to step up his efforts to prevent a crumbling of the nation's democracy.

The latest: Now, nearly two years after the harrowing events at the Capitol, McMullin, a former CIA officer, is preparing for the most consequential race of his life.

  • "There is an extremist movement in our country that would like to unravel our system of self-government. We saw that on Jan 6. and so instead of remaining divided, we need to come together in a new political coalition," McMullin said in an interview from his Draper campaign office.

What's happening: McMullin, an anti-Trump conservative and independent candidate in Utah's Senate race, is challenging incumbent GOP Sen. Mike Lee. They debate today at 6pm at Utah Valley University.

By the numbers: A Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll released last week found 41% of registered voters said they would cast a ballot for Lee, while 37% said they would vote for McMullin.

State of play: McMullin is betting on a coalition of Democrats, disillusioned Republicans and unaffiliated voters in Utah to defeat Lee.

  • McMullin often points to Lee's texts with former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows outlining tactics to challenge the results of the 2020 presidential election as "an egregious violation of the public trust."
  • In an interview with the Deseret News after the texts were revealed, Lee denied efforts to overturn the election, saying: "I was not there to do [Trump's] bidding."

Catch up quick: In an unprecedented move, Utah Democrats voted to back McMullin over one of their own during the primaries to increase their chances of defeating Lee.

  • For the past 48 years, Utahns have only elected Republicans to the U.S. Senate. Lee has called McMullin "a Democrat in disguise."

Between the lines: "An independent always has an uphill climb in any election," said Damon Cann, a political science professor at Utah State University, "but the polling shows that he's within striking distance and has a legitimate shot."

Context: The Senate race comes six years after McMullin's unsuccessful 2016 presidential campaign as an independent candidate.

  • Still, McMullin managed to receive 21.5% of Utahns' votes. That's the highest amount of support an independent presidential candidate has received in a state since 1992, according to The Washington Post.
  • Many Utah voters viewed McMullin, a Latter-day Saint from Provo, as a moderate alternative to former President Trump and then Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
  • Looking back at the presidential race, McMullin put it simply: "Many Utah voters don't feel well represented by either party and they want change."

The other side: Despite the close polling, Jason Perry, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah, said Lee is still in the driver's seat.

  • Lee, a staunch Trump loyalist, won the 2016 Senate race with about 70% of the state's vote. Trump has also endorsed Lee in this year's race.
  • This year the incumbent senator is campaigning on "wins" during his time in office, citing an increased child tax credit, supporting the USA Freedom Act, and pushing for regulatory reform.
  • McMullin's critics have raised concerns over his pledge to not caucus with Republicans or Democrats and the nearly $650,00 of debt he incurred during his presidential campaign and hasn't paid off.

Of note: Independent Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Angus S. King, Jr. of Maine each caucus with Democrats.

Yes, and: Conservative super PAC Club for Growth Action, which supports Lee, has launched an aggressive campaign against McMullin, pouring millions of dollars into the race.

  • The group recently released a doctored attack ad splicing McMullin's past remarks about the Republican Party.

What we're watching: The effectiveness of McMullin's anti-Trump campaign in conservative Utah remains to be seen, according to Cann.


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