We’re about to witness a very interesting test of Utah’s political status quo.
Evan McMullin, who won more than 21% of the Utahns’ votes for president in 2016, will challenge Sen. Mike Lee as an independent candidate for Utah’s Senate seat next year.
An announcement of his candidacy is likely to come soon — perhaps very soon — a source in the McMullin camp told me over the weekend.
If McMullin is elected — and it’s a big “if” — it could pose the most definitive rebuke to date to Donald Trump’s Republican Party and serve notice to leaders of both parties that there is a wide swath of America voters who care less about cultish partisan allegiances and more about results.
The viability of a McMullin candidacy hinges on a few basic assumptions.
1. You can’t beat Lee for the Republican nomination.
In my years covering politics, I’ve come to know Lee’s two leading Republican challengers, Becky Edwards and Ally Isom. Both are smart and qualified. And, I’m really sorry to say this, but neither can overcome the Trump wing of the Utah Republican Party to win the nomination.
That’s particularly true as long as both are in the field splitting the Not-Mike-Lee vote. Even if one of them dropped out of the race, it is very, very likely that the candidate remaining will lose to Lee.
2. Lee’s support is soft outside the core of his own party.
A poll in August by OH Predictive Insights found that less than half of Utahns statewide support the work Lee is doing in Washington. That includes two-thirds of Republicans.
But there are also one out of five Republicans who don’t back Lee, as well as nearly seven out of 10 Democrats, and a plurality of independents.
If a candidate could cobble together those dissident groups, there just might be a path to victory.
That means convincing Democrats their candidate can’t win — which should be the easiest part of the job, considering that since 1994 Republicans have beaten Democrats in U.S. Senate races in the state by about two-to-one.
It means bringing those disgruntled anti-Lee Republicans on board, which might be easier after a GOP primary.
And it means convincing independent voters that they don’t have to vote for a partisan and that McMullin better represents the views and values of independent voters.
It’s not easily done, but if any force can coalesce those disparate groups, it might be disdain for Mike Lee and the distaste for the partisan debacle in Washington.
Utahns fancy themselves as rugged individualists, cut from an independent cloth. It’s why 3 in 10 registered voters in the state are not Republicans or Democrats — they’re unaffiliated.
And there aren’t a lot of people who epitomize the current “team-first, principles later” mentality in Washington more than Lee.
This is a guy who, in 2016, demanded Trump quit the presidential race because of the candidate’s shameful treatment of women in the notorious Access Hollywood tape. At the Republican convention I stood less than a few feet away as Lee threw a veritable hissy-fit trying futilely to keep the party from making a moral mistake.
Once Trump was in office, Lee spent four years supplicating himself before the president, defending the indefensible, and fundraising with the right-wing conspiracist Rep. Lauren Boebert and Rep. Matt Gaetz, who remains under investigation for allegedly paying a minor for sex.
On top of that, Lee has cast a series of votes that, in my mind, do not represent Utah values. The most glaring examples are his vote against reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act and his steadfast opposition to extending benefits to firefighters and police officers stricken will illness after responding to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Last year, in the midst of the campaign for the GOP gubernatorial nomination, I argued that Jon Huntsman could shake up Utah politics and break down the hard Republican-Democrat divide if he ran as an independent.
He didn’t do it, but if he had, I think he would be governor today.
The point is that all Utahns deserve to be represented — not just the ultraconservative minority who choose the Republican nominee.
I believe that most Utah voters are somewhere in the middle ground of our current polarized political structure. And they should be, because political decisions deserve some nuance. It’s not all yes or no, black or white.
But our current structure does not accurately reflect the views of most Utahns — Democrats, independents and moderate Republicans.
Like him or not, McMullin’s candidacy has an opportunity to challenge that simplistic dichotomy. And, at the very least, it gives voters an option to choose someone who would be a heck of a lot better than Mike Lee.