Utah Senate Race Between Lee, McMullin Scrambles Partisan Lines

  • Independent McMullin says he won’t caucus with either party
  • Utah Gov. Herbert and Sen. Romney sitting out race for now

In a midterm election largely divided along clear partisan lines, the Senate race in deep-red Utah stands out as an exception.

In one corner is Sen. Mike Lee (R), who brags about bucking former President Donald Trump and his frequent opposition to annual federal spending packages, even those backed by leaders in his own party.

In the other corner is Evan McMullin, a Democratic-backed independent who ran for president in 2016 as an anti-Trump conservative. Sitting on the sidelines (so far): Sen. Mitt Romney (R) and former Gov. Gary Herbert (R).

(Photo by Zach C. Cohen/Bloomberg Government)
Independent candidate Evan McMullin (left) and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah, right) debated in Orem, Utah, on Oct. 17, 2022.

“It’s a state that sort of marches to the beat of its own drummer,” said Jessica Taylor, an analyst at the Cook Political Report with Amy Walter.

She noted that Romney voted to convict Trump at his impeachment trial for inciting the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, and that Utah Gov. Spencer Cox (R) has alienated some in his party by vetoing a ban on transgender athletes competing in girls’ sports and for his defense of Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) after her sharp criticism of the former president.

An upset of two-termer Lee could send a critical swing vote to the Senate, where Democrats are in charge only because of Vice President Kamala Harris’s tie-breaking role. McMullin has pledged to caucus with neither party.

Debate Night

In their only debate, McMullin blamed inflation on Democrats’ $1.9 trillion Covid relief package (Public Law 117-2) and the president’s student-loan forgiveness initiative, proclaimed himself “pro-life”, and said he’s opposed to “extremes on both sides” of the abortion-rights debate.

He promised not to be a “boot licker” for either Trump or President Joe Biden.

Lee said he voted with Trump administration policy less often than most GOP senators.

“When I was first elected to the Senate, I promised to make my own decisions and to not outsource my thinking to anyone, whether party bosses or anyone else,” Lee told reporters after the debate. “And I have taken that promise very seriously.”

The biggest flash point in this week’s debate came when McMullin called Lee’s coordination with the White House ahead of the Jan. 6 insurrection his “legacy.”

“That was the most egregious betrayal of our nation’s constitution in its history by a US Senator,” McMullin said.

Lee, who voted to reject objections to Arizona and Pennsylvania’s electoral votes, denied he sought to overturn the 2020 presidential election. He said he was trying to prevent states from sending different electors. “You, sir, owe me an apology,” Lee told his opponent during the debate.

Where’s Romney?

McMullin used the debate to invoke the bipartisan work by Romney and the late GOP Sens. Orrin Hatch and Bob Bennett, the latter of whom Lee ousted in a 2010 nominating convention.

Lee told reporters he respects Romney’s neutrality, called him a “friend,” and touted their shared constituent service work. Yet last week, he appeared on Fox News host Tucker’s Carlson’s show to urge Romney to “get on board” with his campaign.

Herbert told reporters wondering about an endorsement, “I’m not gonna tip my hand,” then offered the incumbent a little comfort. “One of the things that I think every Republican should consider is control of he Senate,” Herbert said. “It’d be a little bit embarrassing if Utah was the state that didn’t cause it to tip the other way.”

He acknowledged Lee has had “a hard race,” first having to dispatch primary challengers before facing “unique situation” of a general election without a Democrat.

Party Factions

“When you have a state that basically is dominated by one party, whether it be Republican or Democrat, there are, you know, factions within that party,” said Ryan Williams, executive Vice President at GOP firm Targeted Victory and a former Romney presidential campaign spokesperson. “What Senator Lee is trying to do is unite that majority party in Utah as he heads into the final few weeks of the race.”

McMullin, meanwhile, can’t count on getting all of the anti-Lee vote. Libertarian James Arthur Hansen is on the ballot, and there are a few write-in candidacies. He also faces the challenge of persuading most of the state’s Democratic voters, whom he will need to win the race.

“I think Democrats are coming to terms with the fact that Evan McMullin is not a progressive, and they’re not gonna see eye-to-eye with Evan McMullin on every issue,” said former Rep. Ben McAdams (D-Utah), a McMullin supporter.

An OH Predictive Insights poll conducted Oct. 5-6 gave Lee a 15-point lead over McMullin while finding that 20% of respondents of both parties were undecided. The survey of 483 likely Utah voters had a margin of error of 4.46 percentage points.

A Deseret News/Hinckley Institute poll found Lee up by five points when it surveyed 801 registered voters between Oct. 3-6. That survey, by Dan Jones & Associates, had a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.

The pro-McMullin Put Utah First PAC’s polling conducted Oct. 8-11 of 500 “active voters” by Hill Research Consultants found McMullin ahead 49-43%, with a margin of error of 4 percentage points.

Earlier, the Lee campaign’s internal polling, conducted by WPA Intelligence, had found him the favorite of 57% of the 528 likely voters surveyed between Sept. 27-29. That survey had a margin of error of 4.3 percentage points.

Cash Advantage

Lee enters the final stretch with a financial edge. His campaign reported $1.4 million on hand after spending more than the $6.7 million he’s raised this cycle. McMullin by comparison had $1.2 million in the bank after spending $4.5 million so far, according to his latest Federal Election Commission report.

Lee has spent $2.4 million on ads highlighting support from mayors and a Gold Star widow as well as pointing out he often “stands alone” to oppose spending, according to the media tracking firm AdImpact.

SuperPAC Spends Big to Defend Republican Senator Against Upstart

The Club for Growth is spending $3.9 million, with most ads in the closing stretch attacking McMullin for calling parts of the Republican base “racist” – a charge which McMullin says was taken out of context – and highlighting his campaign debt from his 2016 campaign.

McMullin and a super PAC supporting him, Put Utah First PAC, are spending $2 million each touting the independent’s separation from both parties, tying Lee to Trump, and highlighting Lee’s votes against aid for military veterans and 9/11 first responders.

If the race tightens more, Lee may may get reinforcements from Washington. Jack Pandol, a spokesman for the Senate Leadership Fund and One Nation linked to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), reiterated they support Lee. “We will be there if he needs us,” Pandol said in an email.

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To contact the reporter on this story: Zach C. Cohen in Orem, Utah at zcohen@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Katherine Rizzo at krizzo@bgov.com; Bennett Roth at broth@bgov.com