Utah’s Evan McMullin turns the bipartisan battle for the US Senate on its head

PROVO, Utah (AP) — Evan McMullin standing in a park full of 19th-century wheelbarrows on a state holiday honoring Utah’s early Mormon pioneers.

The independent candidate for the US Senate who won The Utah Democratic Party’s official support for this year’s midterm election dates back to Utah’s pioneering days when it declared its desire to unseat two-year Republican Senator Mike Lee.

“When our ancestors first arrived, the only way we could make this harsh but very beautiful place survive and thrive was by working together,” said McMullin, who sees his candidacy as an opportunity “to unite Americans across party lines to protect democracy.”

To defeat Lee, McMullin’s idealized call for bipartisan unity must do much more than win over Democrats and a few disgruntled Conservatives. Republicans have won every US Senate race in Utah since 1976.

It’s been six years since McMullin, a soft-spoken former Republican congressman, emerged as a conservative candidate as a conservative alternative to Donald Trump. McMullin won 21.5% of the vote in Utah in 2016, the most of any third party candidate in the country. Trump stormed to victory anyway.

McMullin, in a New York Times op-ed following Trump’s election, warned that he was an authoritarian who was “undermining critical democratic norms, including peaceful debate and transition of power.” This year, McMullin hits that message even harder, denouncing his role in the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, his attempts to overturn the 2020 election, and his handling of classified documents.

McMullin has labeled both Trump and Lee as threats to democracy and has mentioned text messages received by the Jan. 6 House Committee of Representatives showing Lee discussing legally dubious plans to keep Trump in power before changing course changes, withdraws and votes to confirm the election results.

“Authoritarians serve themselves and the small cadres that surround them,” said McMullin, a former CIA officer. “They never solve problems.”

As both parties scramble for control of the evenly divided Senate, the quirky Republican vs. Independent contest has turned Utah from a post-election campaign into a possible spoiler. Conservative groups like the Club for Growth are spending millions defending Lee.

If McMullin wins in November, he would become the third Senate independent, alongside Angus King of Maine and Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Both caucus with the Democrats, although McMullin has said he would not caucus with either party.

Both Lee and McMullin are courting voters like Lehi’s Cindy Kemp, who credits Trump with the country’s prosperous economy before the pandemic but has often had enough his public persona.

“With Trump and everything, we were like, ‘What are we going to do?'” Kemp said after speaking with McMullin in Provo. “But he has done good for the country.”

She plans to vote for McMullin.

Eighty miles north at an Ogden calf auction, Lee wears ostrich skin cowboy boots and sits cross-legged in a folding chair. He mingles with voters amid the sound of squeaking pigs after buying a sheep at auction and acknowledges the race defies traditional bipartisan dynamics but sticks closely to traditional Republican talking points: government spending, inflation and poll results widespread disapproval of President Joe Biden.

In response to questions about prominent mid-election issues, Lee repeatedly prefaces his answers by returning to a reminder that McMullin was “embraced and supported and funded by the Democratic Party.”

Lee, a former critic of the former president who even voted for McMullin in the 2016 election in protest against Trumpdismisses McMullin’s alarm bells about extremism and says her race has less to do with Trump than with Biden.

“Trump is not on the ballot. This one isn’t about him,” Lee said as he walked through a cattle pen and discussed the impact of inflation on feed and fuel prices.

“The people of Utah are very concerned about the awful condition that Joe Biden brought about and the awful conditions we are facing now with inflation and all that entails.”

McMullin acknowledges that issues like inflation and abortion rights are priorities in Senate elections nationwide. Still, his campaign focuses on what he believes are growing threats to democracy from power-hungry extremists who are ready to abandon it. Without a functioning, representative democracy, it’s difficult to fix problems like air quality near the Great Salt Lake or economically depressed coal towns in Carbon County, he said.

“This is democracy. And that’s what democracy allows us to do,” McMullin explains.

Although he says the constituents he speaks to largely agree that it’s important to have a functioning government in Washington, McMullin is aware that opinions within the coalition he hopes to rally behind him , collide.

He insists voters are less polarized than people realize, but despite that belief offers carefully calibrated answers on polarizing issues like abortion. He speaks of “standing up against the extremes that want to criminalize women” and opposes abortion bans that don’t have exceptions for rape, but says he “doesn’t have all the answers” instead of articulating when he thinks abortion will be legal should and when it shouldn’t be.

Much like Lee repeatedly points to McMullin’s support of the Democratic Party, McMullin repeatedly provides statements about where he stands on issues by referring to “our coalition” — a group he says is the same as Senator Mitt Romney-backed and includes Democrats, moderate Republicans, and independents.

The “coalition,” he said, also supports investment in more modern infrastructure, but he doesn’t clarify his position on the billions of dollars in infrastructure spending that have been approved since Democrats took control of Washington.

Back at the Weber County Fair, Lee says recently approved spending will exacerbate inflation and expand government’s role in everyday life.

“It’s quite relevant when the party that backed you and funds and supports you is behind a $750 billion spending boondoggle while we’re in a recession and at a time when we’re having a rampant one experience inflation,” said Lee McMullin.

While Lee’s frequent “no” votes to bipartisan legislation draw criticism, they endear him to legions of Utah Republicans who call him “a fighter,” so he’s not afraid to upset Washington.

“He fights for us and takes what we say to heart. Not like other politicians who lie to us and do other things, like Mitt Romney,” Plain City’s Heidi Hadley said after meeting Lee at the fair.

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