If Dems want a chance to unseat Mike Lee, should they run nobody? Maybe. Robert Gehrke explains.

Former U.S. Rep. Ben McAdams is lobbying Democrats to leave the slot blank in hopes Evan McMullin could knock off Sen. Mike Lee.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

Utah Democrats will likely face a tricky and unprecedented choice in their state convention later this year.

A group of Democrats, led by former Congressman Ben McAdams, are pushing the party to nominate an unlikely candidate in the 2022 U.S. Senate race: Nobody.

Instead, McAdams wants Democrats to support independent challenger Evan McMullin.

Naturally, that doesn’t sit well with the highest-profile Democratic candidate, Kael Weston.

“What some want to do is literally rig the system before voters can even have a say,” Weston said. “What this plot is saying basically is that we’ll have two Republicans on the ballot when it comes to policy.”

McAdams says a Democrat can’t win the Senate race later this year (he’s looked at his own numbers against Lee and they aren’t good) and not fielding a nominee is the best way — the only way — to prevent Lee from being reelected.

McAdams has been holding small meetings with Democratic delegates and activists in his home where he makes the case for supporting McMullin. He said the support has been nearly unanimous.

The idea to give delegates at the Democratic convention a choice between the three declared candidates — community activist Allen Glines, musician Austin Searle, and Weston — or the option of not putting a name on the ballot.

Weston is not gathering signatures to get on the ballot, so if delegates choose that last path, the Democratic spot on the ballot will be empty.

“This is a reckoning for Democrats,” Weston said.

Utah Democratic Party Chairwoman Diane Lewis said the party is not taking sides on the issue. “We’re letting the delegates make that decision at convention” on April 23.

On Friday (after I began calling people about the push to not nominate a candidate) McMullin Tweeted that bringing Republicans, Democrats and independents together was “the only way to replace Senator Lee.”

“That’s why I’m asking Democrats to help build the coalition rather than nominate another candidate,” he said. “Together, we can beat Lee, defend our democracy and move America forward.”

There could end up being an enormous amount on the line in November — more than any Utah Senate race in decades.

Lee’s strident conservatism and outspoken support for Trump — including consulting with the White House about potentially overturning the election results (he did not, in the end) — Lee has made himself a juicy target.

In his first quarter of fundraising, McMullin out-raised Lee by roughly a half-million dollars, although Lee still has more in the bank.

And with an evenly-split Senate, every race has the potential to decide which party sets the congressional agenda for the next two years. A McMullin upset in normally-taken-for-granted Utah would be a major blow to Republicans’ prospects.

“Evan has been clear on this,” said Andrew Roberts, McMullin’s campaign manager and McAdams’ former manager. “He will not join a political party in Washington and won’t vote for Mitch McConnell. Instead, he’ll maintain his independence while standing with all who share his commitment to protecting American Democracy.”

Weston contends a three-way race gives a Democrat (specifically him) a shot at winning, pointing to the last Democrat to hold a U.S. Senate seat, Frank Moss, who won a three-way race in 1958. Democrats should support Democratic principles — like protecting the Affordable Care Act — not a re-branded Republican, and choosing not to compete sends the wrong message, he says.

“If we say to the State of Utah … that we as a party don’t believe you should have the choice on Election Day to vote for a Democrat, I think it’s falling right into the trap of saying, ‘Hey, our case isn’t the case that should be made to voters,’” Weston said.

McAdams disagrees.

“I think this is an incredible opportunity for Utah Democrats … to have an impact on a race that has national significance,” he said. “I think it will energize Democrats … who have frankly just been on a losing streak for many years. What we’ve done in the past hasn’t worked. It’s time to try something new.”

These Democratic machinations put McMullin in a tricky position, having to convince Democrats he’s not a Republican in disguise (as Weston says he is) while assuring Republicans he’s not just a tool of the Democrats. That second part can be more challenging if the party throws its support behind him.

So here’s the situation, as I see it.

Lee is vulnerable. The most recent poll by the Hinckley Institute of Politics and Deseret News showed him with just a 42% approval rating statewide, but he does better — 57% — among Republicans. He has two good Republican challengers — former state Rep. Becky Edwards and Ally Isom, who worked for Gov. Gary Herbert. But if they split the anti-Lee contingent, beating Lee gets harder.

I like Weston. He’s bright, accomplished and running for the right reasons. But he’s a Democrat and it has been 30 years since a Democrat has been beaten by fewer than 28 points. Weston also didn’t make a dent in Rep. Chris Stewart when he ran against him two years ago. Having McMullin on the ballot probably hurts Weston with independents more than he helps siphon Republicans from Lee.

That leaves McMullin as the candidate who, on paper, has the best opportunity to put together the coalition to beat Lee, but only if there’s no Democrat in the race.

So is it more important to Democrats to stick with their party, even if it makes it more likely Lee gets re-elected and Republicans control the Senate? Or is it important enough to beat Lee that they do something unprecedented, side with McMullin and at least have a fighting chance to make their votes relevant — and perhaps pull off the upset?

Ultimately that is the question that Democratic delegates will have to answer.