Jhe crowd at Cottonwood High School in Murray, Utah, last month was tense. Amid loud boos and scathing insults, Democrats hotly debated who to appoint to challenge U.S. Senator Mike Lee, whose loyalty to Donald Trump has alienated even some Republicans in his state.
The safe option was Democrat Kael Weston, a Utah native and former State Department official who supports universal health care, carbon taxes and access to abortion.
The other option: Not officially naming anyone, so the party can effectively put its weight behind Evan McMullin, a former “Never Trumper” Republican who is running as an independent.
After heated discussion, the Utah Democratic Party voted 782 to 594 to support McMullin. It was the first time the party had chosen not to nominate one of its own for a U.S. Senate seat.
“A majority of Utahns want to replace Mike Lee,” McMullin, a former CIA officer, tells me. “But if that majority is split in the general election, it would be much more difficult to make a change.”
The Utah Democrats’ decision to cast their spell with McMullin is the latest example of how the enduring strength of Trumpism in many parts of the country has clouded the political landscape. But the coalition forming behind McMullin also reflects Utah’s idiosyncratic mix of religion and conservatism, and the anemic position of Democrats in the state. The last time a Democrat from Utah won a U.S. Senate race was in 1970.
“I want to preface this by saying I love Kael,” said state Rep. Andrew Stoddard, a Democrat who backed McMullin in the nominating contest. “I interacted with him in so many different arenas. He’s caring, he’s a wonderful human being.
“That being said,” he continues, “we haven’t elected a Democrat to the Senate in my entire life. And I think as members of a super-minority here in the state, if we keep doing the same things, we’ll get the same results.
But by trying this Hail Mary — forming a coalition of Democrats, Independent voters and anti-Lee Republican voters in a state Trump won with 58% of the vote — Utah Democrats risk fracturing their already weak party. Some say, irreversibly.
“We’ve never seen anything like it in Utah,” says Todd Weiler, a Republican senator from the state. “It would be one thing if no Democrats had filed for the US Senate, but they had Kael Weston’s case, and he was clearly qualified.”
Do independent senators have more or less influence?
In some ways, McMullin is the ideal candidate for his state. Like 62% of Utah, he is a Mormon and he attended Brigham Young University of Utah. Like 70% of Mormons, he has relatively conservative political views. Until 2016, McMullin was a Republican, having worked for GOP members of Congress and volunteering for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign in 2012.
But perhaps no red state was less welcoming to Donald Trump in 2016 than Utah, where The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints places a high value on modesty and faithfulness. The emergence of the hot-headed, twice-divorced, thrice-married Trump, who has been filmed bragging that he can grab women by the genitals because of his star status, has prompted a sizable faction of state Republicans to seek an alternative candidate.
McMullin emerged to fill the void, leading a long-running presidential campaign in which he reached the ballots of just 11 states. Although he received less than 1% of the vote nationally, he drew 21% in his home state of Utah, finishing third there behind Trump’s 45% and Hillary’s 27%. Clinton.
Lee was among 244,000 Utahns to vote for McMullin in 2016. But soon after Trump took office, Lee made his allegiances clear. He became one of the most outspoken and trusted supporters of the new president. Text messages collected by the House committee investigating the Capitol riot reveal that Lee communicated with Trump’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, in the weeks following the 2020 election about the cancellation of the result. (Lee ultimately did not vote to overturn the state election results.)
Lee poses a similar risk to democracy that Trump did, argues McMullin, adding that Lee has become a “poster child for the politics of extremism and division.”
Citing Lee’s Senate votes against funding 9/11 first responders and being one of only two senators to vote against a bill that would impose Russian sanctions for interference in the 2016 election, McMullin says that “in instead of participating constructively”, Lee chooses to be “a performative obstructionist”.
Lee’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
McMullin says he is committed to being an independent voice in Washington if elected. He vowed to use his position in the Senate to strengthen voting rights, lower drug prices, fight violent extremism and protect Utah’s land and water. Although, unlike Weston, the Democrat who failed to attract his party’s nomination, McMullin has previously declared his opposition to funding Planned Parenthood and the Paris Climate Accord.
Ultimately, for Utahans, the “difference between having Mike Lee and having Evan McMullin as a senator,” says Jim Curry, assistant professor of political science at the University of Utah, would not be ” so dramatic.”
But McMullin himself offered a way in which the situation would be very different: He does not intend to caucus with Democrats or Republicans in the Senate.
“I’m not going to caucus,” he told TIME. “I must maintain my independence in order to represent all elements of this coalition.” He says this independence “will allow Utah to have a much greater voice in our national politics than it does now.”
If he were to win, McMullin would be the third independent in the Senate, joining Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine. Sanders and King, however, caucus with Democrats despite being independents. This gives them certain privileges, including being assigned by the party leadership to influential Senate committees, where bills are debated and fine-tuned.
So if McMullin were to win and stick with his decision not to caucus with either party, he could end up with far less power than other senators, regardless of which party controls the chamber.
“Democrats will be less likely to vote.”
Senator Mike Lee, a Republican from Utah, speaks during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in Washington, DC, in 2020.
Jason Andrew/The New York Times/Bloomberg via Getty Images
The question of caucus, of course, is only relevant if McMullin is elected. It is unclear whether his chances are better than they were six years ago when he ran for president. Some political pundits and state politicians say they are worse.
It was Utah’s religious aversion to Trump that helped McMullin attract a fifth of the presidential vote there in 2016, Weiler says. But Trump is not on the ballot this year. And McMullin’s strategy of wearing his church membership “on his sleeve” as a way to show Utah voters that he is like them has its limits. “The problem he has now is that Mike Lee is also a Mormon. He’s not Donald Trump,” Weiler says. “And so that worked to some degree in 2016. I don’t think that will operate in 2022.”
And beyond the uphill battle McMullin will have to win in November, he also risks further weakening the state’s already fragile Democratic Party by dividing its relatively small base of supporters. The infighting on display at the Democratic state convention in April was just the beginning. The repercussions could extend to the polls, with some political observers predicting that McMullin will not just lose the Senate race but will drag down the performance of Democrats further down the ballot and discourage some party supporters from participating further.
“Democrats will be less likely to vote because there is no Democrat on the ticket,” Curry says. “There is no gubernatorial race, there is no other statewide race. So that was going to be the big draw. And now they don’t have a big draw at the top. And what usually happens when you don’t have a big draw at the top of your party is a lot of people stay home.
Bonnie Billings, who worked for Westin’s campaign and was a delegate to the controversial nominating convention last month, was among those who were discouraged by the nominating convention’s decision to back McMullin over a Democrat. This left her so frustrated that she resigned as delegate and local party leader the following day. “The Democratic Party is fighting in Utah anyway,” she said. “This decision will make us even more useless.”
She pauses for a moment, then clarifies, “Well, I shouldn’t say ‘we.’ I’m no longer part of the party. It will do them more irrelevant.
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