Nov 10, 2022 - Politics

Utah Democrats at odds over decision to back McMullin after he loses

Photo illustration collage of Evan McMullin surrounded by ballot elements.

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

Utah Democrats are at odds with each other over whether it was a smart bet to scrap their own candidate and support independent Evan McMullin in the U.S. Senate race against Republican Sen. Mike Lee.

Why it matters: The risky move could reverberate across Democrats' party-building efforts as they try to turn Utah from a deep-red state to a purple one.

Context: Utah's rapid population growth could eventually tip the scales in Democrats' favor, with most transplants moving here from blue states in recent years.

  • The state's top party operatives hoped that a centrist coalition around McMullin would engage swing voters against Lee, but also for other Democrats on the ballot.
  • But some in the Democratic base — including longtime volunteers — tell Axios the decision to back McMullin fractured the party, hampered down-ballot campaigns and left its most enthusiastic members feeling gut-punched.

Catch up quick: Party delegates voted 57% to 43% in an April convention not to field Democrat Kael Weston — or any other Democrat — on the ballot to challenge Lee, instead throwing the party's support behind McMullin.

  • Proponents of the move saw it as an opportunity to form a lasting coalition with moderate Republicans and independents, and oust Lee — whose recently exposed text messages, reported by CNN, showed support for former President Trump's efforts to overturn the 2020 election.
  • Weston argued he could win if McMullin — a former Republican — and Lee split Utah's otherwise-insurmountable conservative vote. His supporters also warned that other Utah candidates would suffer with no Democrat at the top of the ticket to help campaign.

What happened: Lee won Tuesday in what would be considered a blowout in other elections, but in Utah was the closest Senate election in recent memory.

What they're saying: "This will be the closest race in 50 years, and it energized voters and a volunteer base like Utah has never seen. The boost to centrist candidates down ballot is undeniable. There is clearly a centrist lane for moderate Utahns to build on," former Democratic U.S. Rep. Ben McAdams tweeted on Wednesday.

  • McAdams helped orchestrate Democrats' strategy to cut Weston and coalesce behind McMullin.
  • Weston's post-election statement didn't address the party's decision in April but urged Dems who didn't win — and their supporters — to "stay involved."

Yes, but: Candidate recruiting, already difficult in a conservative state, will only become harder since Democrats abandoned Weston, Katie Adams-Anderton, chair of the Utah County Democrats, told Axios.

  • On Tuesday, more than a third of the 90 open seats in the state legislature went to Republicans who ran unopposed.
  • "Now there always will be this looming thing of, 'Will we take a Democrat off the ballot?' That's a problem," Adams-Anderton said.

The bottom line: Scrapping a Democrat for another candidate is "probably a one-time thing" for the Utah Democratic Party, spokesperson Ben Anderson told Axios.

  • Still, the party is taking heart in McMullin's performance. "I think that shows that there is kind of a solid base of Utahns who are more moderate and willing to vote against an extremist Republican, and that kind of gives us a pathway for the future," Anderson said.

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