Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee (right) and his independent challenger Evan McMullin shake hands before their televised debate, on Oct. 17, 2022, in Orem, Utah. Tech companies and Democratic Party-aligned groups are among those funneling millions into Utah to support McMullin’s bid to unseat Lee. (Photo: Rick Bowmer via Associated Press)
BOUNTIFUL, Utah ― If Mitch McConnell winds up failing to regain control of the Senate next week, it may not be because of Pennsylvania or Arizona or Georgia, but because of people like the mad-as-hell retired game warden in a purple Utah Jazz T-shirt a few miles up the interstate from Salt Lake City.
“It’s time to get rid of Mike Lee,” the 68-year-old said, asking that his name not be used as he slid his ballot into a drop box outside the small, white brick Davis County branch library. “I’m a staunch Republican, but I’m sick of him.”
As the Senate minority leader and his allies focused on a half dozen states around the country with open seats or vulnerable Democrats, they largely ignored one of the most reliably conservative states in the nation ― but one where a culture of rule-following appears to have taken offense with the two-term incumbent’s attempt to help former President Donald Trump remain in power despite his election loss.
A recent survey by Republican pollster David Hill on behalf of the anti-Lee Put Utah First super PAC found that 46% of Republican voters said that Lee’s work on Trump’s “fake elector” scheme made them more likely to vote against him. Thirty-five percent said it would “definitely” make them vote against him.
That distaste over the fake electors, layered atop a more general critique that Lee has accomplished little in his 12 years in office, has presented an opening for former Republican Evan McMullin to join the Senate as an independent ― where he could well hold the key vote on both legislation as well as control of the chamber itself.
“It’s really the first time that Utahans have been engaged in a U.S. Senate race, in a real way, in a really long time,” said Becky Edwards, a former Republican state legislator who unsuccessfully ran against Lee in the primary earlier this year.
Lee won his general election by 29 points in 2010 after successfully unseating fellow Republican Bob Bennett at the state convention and won his 2016 reelection by 41 points. His campaign publicly insists it has nothing to fear and that he is leading with a double-digit margin. Carson Jorgensen, chair of the Utah Republican Party, said their polls show Lee with a steady lead of between 7 and 14 points.
“I truly don’t think he’s got a race on his hands,” Jorgensen said.
Lee’s own statements and actions, though, do not exude that same confidence. In an Oct. 11 appearance on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News program, he all but begged fellow Utah GOP Sen. Mitt Romney to endorse him and to have his family donate to Lee’s campaign.
And last week, he invited former Democratic congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard to campaign with him in Draper. Gabbard in the past has defended both Russian dictator Vladimir Putin and Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and is now a favorite among Trump followers.
“There is no political question that Tulsi Gabbard is the right answer to,” laughed Mike Murphy, the longtime Republican consultant who is advising Put Utah First.
Where the race actually stands is unclear. Utah has not hosted a competitive general election Senate race in half a century and has never had an independent candidate running with the open support of Democrats, who opted to give McMullin a clear shot by not nominating a candidate of their own.
And if he wins, he will do so running a campaign that ― unlike most Democrats who have retreated to safer “kitchen table” issues ― has unabashedly made support of democracy itself the central theme.
“Senator Lee, that was the most egregious betrayal of our nation’s constitution in its history by a U.S. senator,” McMullin chided Lee at their sole debate last month regarding Lee’s attempt to help Trump overturn his election loss. “I believe it will be your legacy.”
From Never Trump to Always Trump
Lee, like so many of Trump’s current Republican supporters, started out appalled that his party was in danger of being taken over by a vulgar game show host from New York City who had a history of donating money to Democrats.
At the 2016 GOP convention, in fact, Lee was among the leaders of a movement to strip Trump of the nomination by changing the party rules and allowing all the delegates to “vote their conscience” rather than abide by their state’s primary or caucus results. When his attempt to persuade fellow members of the party’s Rules Committee failed, Lee took the fight to the convention floor itself, urging delegates to abandon Trump and instead go with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, the delegate count runner up.
That effort also failed, but Lee’s opposition to Trump continued. When the “Access Hollywood” tape was leaked in which Trump bragged that his celebrity allowed him to get away with grabbing women by the genitals, Lee was among those Republicans publicly urging Trump to drop out. A month later, on Election Day, Lee made a show of voting for neither major party candidate, but for an independent: McMullin, who wound up taking a fifth of the vote in Utah and helping hold Trump to below 50% in the state.
After Trump won though, Lee, like most other Republicans, quickly moved to get on his good side. In early 2020, as fellow Utahan Romney voted to convict Trump on his impeachment for extorting Ukraine, Lee sided with every other Republican senator to let him remain in office.
Later that year, as Trump campaigned for reelection, Lee appeared at a rally in Arizona, where he briefly took the stage to exhort his fellow Latter Day Saints church members to support Trump, and even compared him to a hero in the Book of Mormon.
“To my Mormon friends, my Latter Day Saint friends, think of him as Captain Moroni,” Lee said. “He seeks not power, but to pull it down. He seeks not the praise of the world or the ‘fake news,’ but he seeks the well-being and the peace of the American people.”
The comment offended many Mormons, who pointed out that Moroni was a selfless leader who cared more about the welfare of his people than himself ― the exact opposite of Trump.
“If that didn’t turn every LDS against him, they haven’t read the Book of Mormon,” said Doug Mortensen, 72, and a retired trial lawyer, after voting early at the Salt Lake County government center earlier this week.
Lee offered an apology of sorts on his Facebook page the day after his impromptu remark, but his loyalty to Trump continued. Even after the Electoral College ratified Trump’s loss to Democrat Joe Biden, Lee continued to push a scheme for Republicans in states Biden had won to put forward fraudulent Trump electors as a way of giving Trump allies in Congress an excuse to overturn the election and keep Trump in power.
“If a very small handful of states were to have their legislatures appoint alternative slates of delegates, there could be a path,” Lee wrote in a text to Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows that was obtained by the House committee investigating Jan. 6.
That effort bothered even Republicans in Utah, who were never crazy with Trump to begin with. In 2020, Biden won a larger share of the Utah vote ― 38% ― than any Democrat going back to 1964.
“Sen. Lee’s involvement in that whole thing ― it really is concerning,” said Edwards. “It did resonate with people, and people were deeply concerned.”
Tony Saint, a 49-year-old self-described independent who served 19 years in the Navy, said he will definitely vote against Lee, and that his Jan. 6 involvement was a big reason why. “Any time you try to overthrow the government … there’s a lot wrong with that,” he said.
Building an anti-Lee coalition
If Republicans earlier this year failed to recognize the danger than an independent run by McMullin posed, they have been fully aware of that threat in the final stretch.
The conservative Club for Growth and an affiliated “Crypto Freedom PAC” poured millions of dollars into ads that dovetail with Lee’s own attacks on McMullin as a closet Democrat, whom Biden could count on as a certain vote for his proposals.
While it is true that McMullin endorsed Biden in 2020 because he considered Trump to be a threat to the republic, his actual background is what until recently was considered mainstream Republican.
McMullin, like Lee, is a member of the LDS church and a Brigham Young University graduate. He opposes abortion and favors gun rights. In interviews, he explains how he became fascinated with the CIA after watching the Robert Redford movie “Three Days of the Condor” with his family as a teen, and how as a high-schooler he dialed directory assistance to call CIA headquarters to find out how he could join.
That childhood fascination wound up as a first job after Brigham Young and an overseas assignment in the clandestine service after Sept. 11 to hunt down Al Qaeda operatives. After 11 years with the CIA, he went to work as a policy staffer for the House Republican conference, but broke with the party after it nominated Trump in 2016.
He worked to recruit a Republican to run for the White House as an independent to deny Trump the presidency but ultimately took on the task himself, managing to get on a dozen state ballots and winning 732,000 votes nationally ― with 244,000 of those coming from his home state, Utah. Indeed, he and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton between them combined to receive more votes than Trump, who won the state with just 45.5%.
That result, nonetheless, demonstrated a path to defeat an unpopular Republican in Utah, and among McMullin’s first steps after building out his own independent campaign was to persuade Democrats not to mount one of their own.
One of McMullin’s biggest allies on that front was Ben McAdams, the former Democratic congressman from Salt Lake City, who hosted a dozen house parties, inviting Democratic party activists, about 30 at a time, to convince them that the best chance of removing Lee was by not fielding a Democrat on the November ballot and instead backing McMullin.
“We could put forward a candidate, knowing that candidate will lose, or we could be part of a coalition,” McAdams said. “It was about making Utah Democrats relevant. And here we are.”
In April, the state’s Democratic delegates went along with the plan at their convention. McMullin also persuaded the United Utah Party not to field a candidate of their own either, and to throw their support behind him, too.
“There is a coalition of Utahans here that I believe are committed to American democracy,” McMullin said.
Winning over just enough Republicans
To win, that coalition would need a significant share of Republican voters to turn their irritation or disappointment or anger with Lee into an actual vote for McMullin, and it is unclear whether that is possible.
A more recent poll for Put Utah First found that 33% of Republicans disapprove of Lee. If all of them voted for McMullin, he would almost certainly win ― but some percentage of those appear to be voting for Lee despite their misgivings.
At the Wasatch County administration building in the shadow of towering peaks already capped with snow, Karl Christopherson dropped his vote for Lee into the collection box on the floor outside the elections office.
“I know Mike Lee has his problems. But the other guy has even bigger problems,” said the 56-year-old product designer and recent transplant to Heber City from western New York. He said that Democratic support for McMullin would translate into McMullin’s support for their agenda. “He would get his orders from them.”
Thirty miles to the west in the Salt Lake valley, semiretired real estate developer Lou Nield also voted for Lee.
“I think he sometimes puts his foot in his mouth, but I think he’s an honest guy,” said Nield, 72, during a visit to the Salt Lake County government center to pay a tax bill. “The important thing is to not put a Democrat in there, and the other guy running is a Democrat.”
McMullin, at a pep talk a few miles away for his volunteers about to head out for an evening of door-knocking, said that accusing him of being a Democrat is all Lee has, given his inability to defend his pre-Jan. 6 actions or his overall voting record.
“That’s just incorrect. If I wanted to be a Democrat, I’d be a Democrat,” he told HuffPost.
In a conference room at the Glendale branch library, McMullin reminded the group that Republicans disaffected with Lee are an important piece of his support, if he is to win. He urged them not to get upset by new polls that show Lee leading ― and closing, once again brought it back to the central message of his campaign.
“Our democracy is really at risk right now,” he said, but added that defeating a Trump apologist like Lee would send a powerful message. “The eyes of the nation are on us. We can do a tremendously good thing for the country.”
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.