Utah Democrats Back Republican Evan McMullin in Bid to Unseat Trumper Mike Lee

Seeing no way to win under their own label, they've called a Hail Mary.

ABC News (“Utah Democrats back independent as US Senate candidate“):

Utah Democrats pulling hard to defeat Republican Sen. Mike Lee took the unusual step Saturday of spurning a party hopeful to instead get behind an independent, former presidential candidate Evan McMullin.

Democrats were swayed by calls from prominent members who said McMullin, a conservative who captured a significant share of the vote in Utah in 2016, was the best chance to beat Lee in the deeply conservative state that hasn’t elected a Democratic U.S. senator for more than 50 years.

“I want to represent you. I’m committed to that. I will maintain my independence,” McMullin told Democratic delegates.

Lee also faced two GOP challengers at his party’s nominating conventions. He handily won in front of the right-leaning crowd with over 70% of the vote. But those candidates will still appear on the primary ballot because they used the state’s other path to the primary ballot and gathered signatures. Former state lawmaker Becky Edwards garnered about 12% of the vote Saturday. Former gubernatorial deputy chief of staff Ally Isom came in third.

Lee’s relationship with former president Donald Trump has been front and center since CNN reported on text messages showing that the senator was involved in early efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election, though Lee later pivoted and voted to confirm the election results after no widespread fraud emerged. “I did my job,” Lee said about the messages. “I did my job the way that I’ve always promised I would go about doing my job.”

McMullin is a former CIA officer ran for president in 2016 and made inroads in the deeply conservative state where where many GOP voters had reservations about then-candidate Trump. Lee himself cast a protest vote for McMullin, though he later became as staunch Trump ally, and the former president has endorsed him.

A Democrat ran for the nomination, Kael Weston, but the pro-McMullin camp ultimately convinced party delegates to nominate no one, clearing the path for the independent as much as possible. His supporters included prominent Democrats like former Congressman Ben McAdams.

“I know Evan. I trust Evan,” McAdams told delegates during the contentious debate, framing McMullin as the best possible chance to unseat Lee in a state where Republicans outnumber Democrats 4-to-1.

Republican Party Chair Carson Jorgensen took aim at the Democrats’ decision, arguing it showed a weakness in the other party’s platform. “We as Republicans, now’s our time to shine,” he said. “I don’t know if everyone quite understands the gravity of this.”

Deseret News (“How bad do Utah Democrats want Mike Lee out? Bad enough to ditch their own nominee and back Evan McMullin instead“):

The Utah Democratic Party made an extraordinary decision on Saturday.

A majority of delegates decided to not put forth a Democratic candidate to face off with Republican Sen. Mike Lee and to instead back independent candidate Evan McMullin.

The decision has big implications for Utah’s U.S. Senate race. It injects significant momentum into a more moderate, independent movement in Utah politics — and signals Utah Democrats are so eager to up the chances of beating Lee they’re willing to ditch their own candidate. At least for now.

[…]

McMullin, a former Republican, ran an unsuccessful independent campaign for president against former President Donald Trump in 2016. Now he’s got Lee in his crosshairs.

“We know that Sen. Mike Lee was quite involved in the effort to overturn our democracy,” McMullin told reporters shortly after his victory was reflected in vote tallies, seizing another opportunity to blast Lee over his text messages to then-White House chief of staff Mark Meadows as he explored ideas on how to overturn the 2020 presidential election before ultimately deciding to vote to certify the electoral results on Jan. 6.

“We have got to take a stand as Utahns,” McMullin said. “I don’t care if you’re a Democrat or or an independent or a Republican or a member of the United Utah Party, this is a line that cannot be crossed, our right to hold our leaders accountable and to vote for or against them and have a peaceful transition of power is essential for liberty and justice in America. We cannot compromise on that, and we must all be united to defend it.”

Despite several failed maneuvers from Democratic candidate Weston’s supporters to block it from coming to a vote, the motion to back McMullin won with 782 votes to Weston’s 594. It passed with 57% of the vote, according to preliminary results.

[…]

The move to back an independent candidate rather than their own nominee is the first effort of its kind in Utah’s party history.

The unprecedented decision, McMullin said, shows “Utah Democrats are putting country over party.”

“We have a tremendous amount of common ground (in) this coalition of Democrats, independents, principled Republicans … who want to make a change,” McMullin said. “This idea that our differences are greater than what we have in common are just false.”

[…]

Wilson, who voiced the key motion in favor of McMullin, made an emotional plea to her fellow Democrats. She said she knows from her unsuccessful bid for U.S. Senate against Sen. Orrin Hatch in 2018 “our numbers don’t add up.”

“We need this coalition. It’s a practical matter,” Wilson said. “This is a good move for us.”

Two posts in one day involving Utah is almost certainly an OTB record.

I had never heard of McMullin until he launched his quixotic bid to siphon votes away from Trump in August 2016, well after the deadline to get on the ballot in half the states. While there was some hope that he would at least turn the tide in Utah, it did not come to pass.

As Steven Taylor reminded us again yesterday, the flawed nature of representation in the US system makes party labels matter more than just about anything else, including policy positions and even common decency. Still, despite no experience as a political candidate, McMullin garnered 21.54% of the votes in Utah in 2016, compared to 27.46% for Clinton and 45.54% for Trump. While that doesn’t seem impressive, Trump got 58.13% of the vote to Biden’s 37.65% in 2020.

Absent a Democrat on the ballot, then, it’s not inconceivable that McMullin could win. If you add his votes and Clinton’s in 2016, you get to 49% and beat Trump.

Then again, Lee did much better than Trump in 2016, getting 68.2% of the vote to his Democratic opponent’s 27.1%. Note that this is also ten points better than Trump did in 2020.

Still, Utahans are fine people and maybe there’s a backlash against Lee’s role in the attempt to steal the 2020 presidential election? Color me skeptical. The latest polling I can find is from March 30 and this is what it shows:

Sen. Mike Lee comes out on top in a three-way race for U.S. Senate against a Democrat and an independent in a new poll, though less than half of Utah voters would choose the incumbent Republican.

The latest Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics survey also found nearly a quarter of Utahns don’t know who they would vote for with the November election still seven months away.

The poll found 43% of voters say they most likely would support Lee in the general election, 19% favor independent candidate Evan McMullin and 11% would pick Democrat Kael Weston. Another 3% would go for someone else, while 24% are undecided.

Let’s assume that 43% is Lee’s floor. Again, he got half again that much the last time he was on the ballot. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that Democrats will go along with being disenfranchised and hop aboard the McMullin train without reservation. That brings McMullin from 19% to 30%. Let’s assume that McMullin also gets the “someone else” votes. That brings him to 33%. Only ten points behind! So that would just mean he’d need to split the “undecided” votes a little more than 2-to-1 to overtake Lee.

So I’m saying there’s a chance? I am. But, frankly, not much of one. Then again: there’s no conceivable scenario in which a Democrat would beat Lee. (No, not even a Roy Moore scenario. While Alabama is a deep red state, it’s still 40 percent Democratic, mostly owing to a sizable Black population.)

One other thing: I can’t answer a rather obvious question from the news articles I’ve read this morning or scouring of McMullin’s campaign website: with whom does he intend to caucus in the event he somehow wins? He says he’s an “independent voice for Utahans” and his policy priorities are hard to pigeonhole. But the two “Independents” currently in the Senate, Bernie Sanders and Angus King, both caucus with the Democrats. Will McMullin do the same? If so, he’s effectively a Democrat. If he caucuses with the Republicans, he’s effectively a Republican even if he’s the GOP’s version of Joe Manchin. And if he refuses to caucus with either party, then Utah is denied representation on important committees.

But, again, that’s largely a theoretical question. I’d bet a lot of money that Utahans vote for the person on the Republican ballot line over the “independent” who was a staunch Republican six years ago.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2022, US Politics, ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Sleeping Dog says:

    Yeah, a hail Mary, but what alternative do Dems in Utah have? As far as what party would he caucus with, ideologically, a no longer existing version of the R party would be a fit for him. It is hard to see him caucusing with the Dems. An unlikely alternative would be to caucus with neither and be a true independent. Of course that would mean lousy committee assignments and no power, beyond persuasion in the larger body. Perhaps the best approach is to caucus with whichever party controls the Senate.

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  2. James Joyner says:

    @Sleeping Dog:

    Perhaps the best approach is to caucus with whichever party controls the Senate.

    That would be the obvious move. But what if it’s 50 Republicans, 49 Democrats or Democrat-caucusing Independents, and McMullin? He’s suddenly more powerful than Joe Manchin! But, on the other hand, he’d piss off all the Democrats who threw in with him if he went with Mitch McConnell and, almost by definition, his voters would mostly be Republicans who just couldn’t stomach Lee.

  3. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Still, Utahans are fine people and maybe there’s a backlash against Lee’s role in the attempt to steal the 2020 presidential election? Color me skeptical.

    Fine people? Who maybe do the right thing by not re-electing a person who broke his solemn oath to protect and defend the Constitution?

    Obviously you have a very fluid and amorphous definition of what it means to be a fine person.

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  4. Sleeping Dog says:

    @James Joyner:

    He’s suddenly more powerful than Joe Manchin!

    And far more conservative. The number of progressive heads exploding will make for the world’s largest fireworks show.

    Whichever caucus he joins can’t consider him a toe the caucus line, member. He’ll be a nightmare for either Schumer or Moscow, but given he’ll be representing an R state and his poplitics, most likely he’ll caucus with the R’s. Utah Dems will just need to take solace in that they stabbed Lee in the back.

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  5. James Joyner says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: The overwhelming number of people in Utah and elsewhere pay very little attention to politics on a day-to-day basis. They use party labels as a proxy. Utah last voted Democrat for President in 1964, which was a disaster year for Republicans. Even so, they voted for Trump in much smaller numbers than previous Republican candidates.

    Lee is simply a less-well-known commodity than Trump. And Utah Republicans, like Republicans elsewhere, are likely to actually believe that there was some sort of Democrat-led chicanery with the results in 2020.

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  6. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @James Joyner: So, instead of amoral, they’re either lazy or stupid. I don’t find that to be an improvement, James.

    And just for the record, anybody feeling the need to take exception to my statements about Utahans in general, please feel free to insert Jim Wright’s emergency “Not all” where appropriate.

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  7. Scott F. says:

    @Sleeping Dog: If McMullin believes what he says about having to take a stand against those who would overturn an election, then McMullin would caucus with the Democrats regardless of who has the majority. That’s a big “If” I know, but only one party supports fair elections.

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  8. Mister Bluster says:

    Utah last voted Democrat for President in 1964, which was a disaster year for Republicans.

    Lyndon Johnson v Barry Goldwater
    I actually found the picture of Goldwater that I remember where he sticks his finger through his glasses frames to demonstrate that his spectacles had no lenses. I’m sure he had a good Republican reason to wear them but I don’t know what it was.
    The picture is on this page.
    You have to scroll down to the ninth row to see the picture.
    This link is a mile long so it may not even work…
    It worked for me. When I click on the image to see if I can isolate it the image disappears.

  9. Scott F. says:

    The coming elections are an “All Hands on Deck” effort in the fight for our democracy. I favor any political gambit that improves the chances of removing a Republican from office. Save our democracy first. We’ll wrestle with other policy later.

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  10. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    Absent a Democrat on the ballot, then, it’s not inconceivable that McMullin could win.

    Meh… with no Democrat on the ballot, it’s also not inconceivable that even fewer Democratic voters show up than in a normal mid-term. As to whether the move was a good one, McMullin is better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick, but at heart, he’s still Republican.

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  11. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Mister Bluster: If the glasses didn’t have lenses in them, the special effects departments of the photographers of the individual pictures did a spectacular job (no pun intended) of editing in the reflections of rooms in most of the pictures.

  12. Lounsbury says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: How very useful sneering at the electorat for being different than yourself. Winning that.

    Most humans in most electrorats everywhere are not particularly politics obsessed and it is rather a self-regarding idiocy of a conceit to erect that as a standard. Beni Adam Beni Adam. People are People and constructing the Soviet, Arab or Liberal Lefty New Man is always an excercise in failure.

    Rather the US Left overweigthed to eggheadism, might rather look to addressing its failures in structuring its politics for the entire electroal map you face, the real one, not the one you desire to have.

  13. Mister Bluster says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:..reflections

    I saw those reflections in the other pictures. My memory of the 1964 President USA campaign was that Goldwater wore the lens free frames occasionally.
    I did not have time to search for any corroboration of my memory of the 1964 campaign (I was 16 at the time) before I made the earlier post. Since then I found this: “American Senator Barry Goldwater continued to wear lensless horn-rimmed spectacles after being fitted with contact lenses because he was not recognizable without his trademark glasses.” Here
    Scroll down to the section headed: Fashion.

  14. Mister Bluster says:

    More about Goldwater’s peepers from the New York Times cover story August 16, 1964.

    Then Mr. Johnson added with sarcastic emphasis:
    “So it seems to me that even at the price of some reflection the Republican candidate ought to keep his lenses in his glasses, at least on the subject of nuclear warheads.”
    This was a reference to a photo of Senator Goldwater in newspapers today. It showed him wearing lensless glasses to cut down the glare of photographers’ flashbulbs.
    Source

  15. DK says:

    @Lounsbury: “Will 2022 be a teachable moment for Democrats?”

    He. I see we’re still pretending it’s Manhattan and Marin counties that’s going to be suffering under McQarthy-McConnell.

    Better question is “Will 2022-2024 be a teachable moment for suffering and struggling Americans?”

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