SALT LAKE CITY – Just weeks before the Nov. 8 vote, Utah's senior senator, Republican Mike Lee, is now acknowledging a real reelection threat from Evan McMullin, an anti-Donald Trump independent and former Republican challenging him in the state's most competitive Senate race in decades.
Lee's campaign insists it is confident heading into Election Day, but there are unmistakable signs of anxiety in a race shaping up as a referendum on the direction that Trump has taken the Republican Party.
Lee recently sent out fundraising emails with the subject line: “I’m losing.” In an appearance on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News program, Lee begged the state's other Republican senator, Mitt Romney, to “get on board” and endorse him. And speaking to reporters after a debate, the two-term senator said what his campaign had previously avoided saying: “It’s close.”
In reliably Republican Utah, the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, has emerged as a potent issue after the House committee investigating the riot published Lee’s text messages with then-President Trump's chief of staff, Mark Meadows.
In the exchange, Lee discussed ways to challenge the 2020 results in the days and weeks after the election. Lee has claimed he was merely doing due diligence and he notes that he did not join congressional Republicans who objected to the results when they were certified on Jan. 6, the day of the insurrection. Lee has not leaned into claims of widespread election fraud and manipulation of voting machines in the 2020 election that have been debunked by repeated audits, court cases and Trump’s own Department of Justice.
Shortly after the text messages were released, Utah Democrats aiming not to split the anti-Lee vote decided to back McMullin rather than nominate a Democrat. While Lee has tried to categorize McMullin as a Democrat, McMullin, who ran for president in 2016 as an independent and won Lee's vote as a protest of Donald Trump, has said he would not join either party's caucus if elected to the Senate.
"I’m not going to Washington to play the party power game," he said.
Laura Knowlton, a Republican from right-leaning Davis County, cites the text messages as one of her reasons for voting for McMullin. She is certain they indicate further involvement from Lee in efforts to overturn the election.
Knowlton doesn’t understand how voters could ignore that. Yet in an election year where many Republicans remain captivated by Trump and the voting fraud claims at the basis of his pursuit to overturn the 2020 outcome, she predicts some — including in her family — will vote for Lee out of party allegiance. “This will be a test,” she said. “Can you just excuse the things we know about Lee and blindly vote for him because he has an ‘R’ next to his name?”
McMullin has tried to use the texts to puncture the reputation Lee has worked to cultivate as a principled conservative deeply committed to the Constitution. McMullin has framed them as proof of how Lee’s transformation from onetime Trump critic to loyal supporter puts him at odds with Utah voters yearning for an alternative to the direction that Trump has taken the Republican Party.
McMullin argues the country's long-running partisan gridlock and the more recent threats to democracy are intertwined symptoms of a political culture that has veered toward extremes.
He and campaign allies such as Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., have urged voters to put aside their views on abortion, government spending and other issues so they can band together against what is portrayed as the existential threats to democracy posed by Trump and loyalists such as Lee.
“I would love to have the luxury to disagree on issues again. We’re gonna argue taxes forever. But right now, we’re fighting for the survival of this country,” Kinzinger, one of two Republicans on the House's Jan. 6 committee, told an applauding audience at a campaign event for McMullin on Thursday in downtown Salt Lake City, one of Utah’s most liberal-leaning areas.
Lee has tried to focus the race on pocketbook issues such as the cost of living. He is aiming to appeal to Utah’s Republican majority, making a case about how important he thinks it is for the party to retake the Senate In a debate this past week, he cited what he said was his his libertarian voting record and willingness to break from Trump.
The senator said that “seriously entertaining the idea of supporting an opportunistic gadfly supported by the Democratic Party might make for an interesting dinner table conversation. But this is not an ordinary year.”
Republican voter Bill Lee, a longtime Lee supporter who is not related to him, said McMullin has been forced to obscure his real positions on some issues in order to keep together the disparate coalition of Republicans, Democrats and independents that he needs.
“He’s playing a fine-line game, where he’s trying to garner enough votes from three different groups to coalesce around some sort of margin of victory,” Bill Lee said. “But if he talks too much on where he actually stands, he’ll probably alienate one of those groups, so his game plan has been to stay as quiet as possible.”
Utah is a deeply conservative state, where the political culture borrows heavily from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. A majority of the population — including Lee and McMullin — are members. The faith's support for refugees and culture that teaches self-restraint often clashes with the direction that Trump has taken the GOP.
Members of the faith lean Republican, yet polling has shown Trump commands less robust support among them than other prominent GOP politicians.
Lee’s 2020 remarks comparing Trump to Captain Moroni, a scriptural hero in the Book of Mormon, alienated some members of the faith and is the subject of a recent McMullin attack ad.
Unlike other competitive Senate races where Republicans have tried to play down and rebuff Democrats’ efforts to make abortion a central issue, both candidates in Utah identify as anti-abortion. McMullin says he is “pro-life” but opposes extreme policies that criminalize women. Lee said at the debate he was “deeply thrilled” with the Supreme Court’s decision in June to overturn Roe v. Wade.
Though abortion is a key issue for her this election, Jenny Bech, one of the many Democrats who came to see McMullin and Kinzinger in Salt Lake City, said she plans to vote for McMullin.
“I think there's a sense of desperation from the voters,” she said. “I'm a therapist and I can tell you people are very anxious.”
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