Kaysville • Ally Isom says she holds the same conservative values as Sen. Mike Lee, and she predicts they’d vote the same way “97% of the time.”
And yet, on Thursday, Isom launched her campaign for the Republican nomination in Utah’s 2022 Senate race. She’s challenging Lee because she wants to see a change — in tone, in how politicians talk to the public, and in how they treat one another.
“Our nation is at a crossroads. I think the Republican Party is at a crossroads as well,” she told The Salt Lake Tribune this week. “The public dialogue has denigrated to a place of rancor and division and us-versus-them mentality that I think is actually really dangerous in the long term for public policy solutions.”
Isom promised, “You’re never going to find me throwing fiery darts verbally. You’re not going to find me throwing red meat. I hold the same classic conservative principles, but I think there’s a better way to have the conversation that doesn’t alienate and divide.”
Lee, Utah’s senior senator, is seeking a third six-year term. He’s regularly one of the most conservative members of the Senate. Isom is his second prominent Republican challenger. Former state Rep. Becky Edwards is also running for the party’s nomination in deep-red Utah.
Who is Ally Isom?
This Kaysville resident has been involved in politics since her days at Brigham Young University in the late 1980s. She helped run the early campaigns of Gary Herbert, when he was a Utah County commissioner, and later, when he was governor, she joined his office as a deputy chief of staff and spokesperson. She left in December 2013 to become a spokesperson for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
She held a few jobs for her Latter-day Saint faith during her six-year tenure, the first working on programs aimed at the LGBTQ community, women, racial minorities and those of other religions.
Isom took a leadership role with a small biotech company called EVŌQ Nano in April 2020, where she worked until resigning last month to focus on running for public office.
She intends to spend a few months touring Utah with her new red running shoes. Her plan is to walk a mile in every community, listening to local leaders, teachers, farmers and others. That starts Saturday, when she’ll walk in the Kaysville Independence Day Parade.
“I want to understand what’s top of mind to them,” she said. “I think that will shape where my priorities are.”
Why challenge an incumbent?
Isom has been involved in enough campaigns to know that beating a sitting officeholder is tough. It’ll likely take millions of dollars and a well-organized effort. Even then, she has to win over members of her party who have previously voted for Lee.
She is betting there are enough Utah Republicans who want to hit the same reset button she does, who are calling for what she describes as “a Republican renaissance.” And she sees Lee as part of the party’s problem.
Isom believes everyone has some blame for the rise in political rancor, though she tracks it back to 2010, when Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, lost at the state GOP convention. Lee ultimately won that seat.
“If you watch that 2010 convention and some of those speeches,” she said, “you can see some of that hostility creeping in.”
Isom argues that Lee hasn’t adequately represented Utah’s county commissioners, education officials and business leaders.
“I just want to see Utah have a greater voice at the table,” she said. “I think sometimes what’s happening now is our folks from Utah go to D.C. and feel like they don’t have somebody speaking on their behalf in the Senate.”
Isom said she has heard this criticism about Lee and Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah.
She also criticized Lee for being “obstructionist,” for holding up legislation from being debated. Edwards leveled similar criticisms at Lee.
Already facing the heat
Like Edwards, Isom has already been the target of critical mailers sent from the Club for Growth, a conservative group that has long backed Lee.
Isom is seen driving a car on the flyer, and she’s being accused of taking “a vacation” from the Republican Party. The mailer is referencing Isom’s decision to no longer register as a Republican after Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016.
At the time, she posted on Facebook: “Dear GOP, you may have won an election yesterday, but you lost me.”
She re-upped as a Republican in 2020 to vote in Utah’s governor’s race. She cast a primary ballot for Gov. Spencer Cox.
She doesn’t regret this move, even though it has become an immediate line of attack.
“That was a really important time for me personally to reflect on what makes me a Republican and the classic conservative principles that I value,” she said. “And those have never changed.”
She said she expects the Club for Growth’s criticisms to backfire and suggested that Lee should call for the mailers to stop.
Lee’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment. Edwards said in a statement, “As evidenced by the out-of-state attack mailers targeting the two of us, it’s clear that Sen. Lee is worried about his chances against competitive candidates. I’m looking forward to continuing to discuss how I can bring better leadership, better politics, and better solutions to Utahns.”
The Trump factor
Isom isn’t backtracking on her criticism of Trump. She appeared in a video during the 2020 race with a group called Women of Faith Speak Up and Speak Out, in which she urged people not to support Trump.
“This November, as women of faith and covenant, we reject the ugly, cruel and corrupt to champion principle, unity, harmony and integrity,” Isom said in the video, which also included Edwards. Edwards voted for Joe Biden in the 2020 race.
Isom said, “I have never voted for Joe Biden. I’ve never voted for Donald Trump.” Asked whom she did vote for president, she said that was between her and God.
“I felt like I didn’t have a choice that reflected my priorities and my core conservative values,” she said.
Romney also didn’t vote for Trump. Lee did. He even served as Trump’s Utah co-chairman, though Lee didn’t vote for Trump in the 2016 race.
During the most recent contest, Lee appeared in Arizona at a rally for Trump aimed at Latter-day Saint voters. He compared Trump to Captain Moroni, an ancient military commander in the faith’s Book of Mormon. Lee faced some criticism for the comments, including from Isom. The two had an exchange on Facebook.
“I have read Moroni’s sacred words — I treasure them, I ponder them, they are written in my heart — and in that, I find the greatest disconnect, dear Senator,” Isom wrote.
Lee responded, “I respect your views, but those words are equally sacred to me. I understand that you read them differently here, as is your right. Am I any less entitled to read this the way I do?”
Isom wrote back, “This is NOT about your right to say it — that I hold equally sacred. Rather, it is about your application of the analogy — one many hold deeply sacred — in a political rally.”
Thinking back to this disagreement, Isom said recently, “There just seemed to be a disregard for the sacred and there seemed to be an opportunistic pandering for favor. And it just felt a little out of touch.”
Women in politics
Edwards and Isom have directed some of the same criticisms at Lee. They both voted for someone other than Trump last November. But Isom wants to make it clear.
“I’m not Becky, and Becky is not me,” Isom said. “She’s a dear friend. I have nothing but complete respect and regard for her and her service. Her service has been different than my service.”
Edwards was a state lawmaker who recently served a Latter-day Saint mission with her husband.
Isom said her service in government, in her church and most recently in the private sector makes her stand out as a candidate. Also while Edwards is a moderate Republican, Isom rejects that label, saying “I just think that’s a false litmus test.”
Even so, Isom believes it’s “fantastic” that two prominent Republican women are running for the U.S. Senate in Utah.
“It’s well past time for Utah to have a female senator,” she said, noting the state was one of the first to allow women to vote. She said she got into the race because of the encouragement of prominent women on three days culminating Jan. 6, when a pro-Trump mob attacked the U.S. Capitol in a failed insurrection.
“I watched our nation’s Capitol under attack, and I thought, ‘I want my country back. I want my party back,’” she said. “I feel a responsibility both as a woman and as a Utahn, as a businessperson, to say it’s time we do things differently, and women do things differently. We bring a different perspective to the conversation.”
Isom said voters shouldn’t back candidates because they’re women or men.
“You should only cast a vote for somebody whose vision you believe in, whose values you align with,” she said. “So does gender play into it? I just see it as a plus. I don’t see it as requisite, so much as there’s something extra that comes with that when our current delegation is all men.”
Edwards also weighed in, saying, “I’m always pleased to see women get involved and run for public office. Utah has a rich legacy of conservative women leaders making history. For the health of our American democracy, it’s critical to have more voices with differing perspectives at the table.”
Isom will start her listening tour, though she already has an idea of what she’ll hear. She believes Utahns worry about Biden’s proposed spending. There are concerns about inflation. People want to hear more about clean energy, education and how the government is fighting cybercrime.
She’ll seek her party’s nod through the convention, and she’ll gather signatures hoping to get on the primary ballot.
When asked about hot-button issues such as gun rights or abortion, Isom demurs.
“I’m really more interested in Utah knowing who Ally Isom is and what I’m about,” she said as she launches her campaign. “I think that’s really important right now. There’ll be plenty of time to deep-dive into issues.”
The primary will take place June 28, 2022.