Just weeks before the Nov. 8 vote, Utah’s senior senator, Republican Mike Lee, is now acknowledging a real re-election threat from Evan McMullin, an anti-Donald Trump independent and former Republican who is challenging him in the state’s most competitive Senate race in decades .
Lee’s campaign insists it heads into Election Day with confidence, but there are unmistakable signs of fear in what turns out to be a referendum on the direction Trump has taken the Republican Party.
Lee recently sent out donation emails with the subject line, “I’m losing.” During an appearance on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News program, Lee asked the state’s other Republican Senator, Mitt Romney, to “get on board” and support him. And speaking to reporters after a debate, the two-year-old senator said what his campaign had previously avoided saying: “It’s close.”
In staunchly Republican Utah, the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the US Capitol has emerged as a serious concern after the House Inquiry Committee released 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 exercising due diligence, and notes that he did not join congressional Republicans in objecting to the results when they were confirmed on Jan. 6, the day of the riot . Lee has not relied on claims of widespread voter fraud and voting machine manipulation in the 2020 election, which have been debunked by repeated audits, court cases and Trump’s own Justice Department.
Shortly after the text messages were released, Utah Democrats, aiming not to split the anti-Lee vote, decided to endorse McMullin rather than nominate a Democrat. While Lee has attempted to categorize McMullin as a Democrat, McMullin, who ran for president as an independent in 2016 and won Lee’s vote in protest at Donald Trump, has said he would not align himself with any party factions 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-wing Davis County, cites the text messages as one of her reasons for voting for McMullin. She’s sure they’re hinting at Lee’s continued involvement in efforts to overthrow the election.
Knowlton doesn’t understand how voters can ignore that. But in an election year when many Republicans remain intrigued by Trump and the allegations of voter fraud underlying his bid to overturn the 2020 result, she predicts some — including her family — will vote for Lee out of party loyalty . “It’s going to be a test,” she said. “Can you excuse the things we know about Lee and blindly vote for him because he has an ‘R’ next to his name?”
McMullin has attempted to use the lyrics to tarnish the reputation Lee has cultivated as a principled conservative deeply committed to the Constitution. McMullin framed them as evidence of how Lee’s transformation from one-time Trump critic to staunch supporter is putting him at odds with Utah voters who yearn for an alternative to the direction Trump has taken the Republican Party.
McMullin argues that the country’s longstanding partisan stalemate and more recent threats to democracy are intertwined symptoms of a political culture that has gone to extremes.
He and campaign allies like Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., have urged voters to put aside their views on abortion, government spending and other issues so they can unite against what Trump portrays as an existential threat to democracy and Loyalists like Lee.
“I would like to have the luxury of being able to disagree again on issues. We’re gonna fight about taxes forever. But right now we’re fighting for the survival of this country,” Kinzinger, one of two Republicans on the Jan. 6 House committee, told an applauding crowd at a campaign rally for McMullin Thursday in downtown Salt Lake City, one of Utah’s most liberal areas.
Lee has tried to focus the race on budget issues like the cost of living. He wants to appeal to the Republican majority in Utah and argue how important he thinks it is for the party to retake the Senate against Trump.
The senator said that “serious consideration of the idea of backing an opportunistic brake supported by the Democratic Party could make for an interesting round-the-table conversation.” But this is no ordinary year.”
Republican voter Bill Lee, a longtime Lee supporter who is not related to him, said McMullin has been forced to cover up his true positions on some issues to keep together the disparate coalition of Republicans, Democrats and independents he needs .
“He’s playing a fine line game where he’s trying to collect enough votes from three different groups to compact himself around some sort of margin of victory,” said Bill Lee. “But if he talks too much about where he actually stands, he’ll probably upset one of those groups, so his game plan was 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. Faith support for refugees and a culture that teaches self-restraint often clashes with the direction Trump has taken for the GOP.
Members of the faith lean toward Republicans, but polls have shown that among them, Trump enjoys less support than other prominent GOP politicians.
Trump failed to garner support from a majority of Utah voters in 2016, and Joe Biden lost, but fared better among Utah voters in 2020 than any Democrat since 1964.
Lee’s 2020 comments comparing Trump to Captain Moroni, a Biblical Book of Mormon hero, have alienated some members of the faith and are the subject of a recent advertisement for McMullin attacks.
Unlike other competing Senate elections in which Republicans have sought to downplay and dismiss Democrat efforts to make abortion a central issue, both Utah candidates identify as anti-abortion candidates. McMullin says he is “pro-life” but opposed to extreme policies that criminalize women. At the debate, Lee said he was “deeply excited” by the Supreme Court’s decision in June that Roe v. pick up calf.
Although abortion is a key issue for her in this election, Jenny Bech, one of the many Democrats McMullin and Kinzinger visited in Salt Lake City, said she plans to vote for McMullin.
“I think there’s a sense of despair among voters,” she said. “I’m a therapist and I can tell you people are very anxious.”
https://www.sltrib.com/news/nation-world/2022/10/22/utah-senate-race-referendum/ Referendum on direction Trump led GOP