Utah Democrats face dilemma: help an independent to try to beat Sen. Mike Lee or stand with the party

Some Democrats want to clear the field to help independent candidate Evan McMullin defeat Republican Mike Lee, but that means kicking a Democratic hopeful to the curb.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Evan McMullin, who is looking to unseat U.S. Sen. Mike Lee, conducts an interview in the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 4, 2022, during the final day of the Utah Legislature’s 2022 general session.

Do Utah Democrats send a candidate to November’s ballot in the U.S. Senate race, which most likely extends the party’s five-decade-long losing streak? Or, should they compromise their values to make an uneasy alliance with a conservative candidate in hopes of denying Sen. Mike Lee another term in Washington?

It’s certainly not the most exciting “Choose your own adventure” book on the shelf, but it’s on the spring syllabus for Utah’s Democrats.

Distilled to its essence, it is a choice between principles and practicality, and neither are particularly great choices for Utah’s minority party.

Kael Weston is unopposed in the Democratic Party, so giving him the nomination should be nothing more than a formality. Traditionally, lone candidates are nominated by acclamation at the party’s convention without the need for a formal vote by delegates.

Not this year, though.

A group of prominent Democrats, fronted by former Rep. Ben McAdams and Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson, say the party should withhold its nomination to increase the chances for independent Evan McMullin to defeat Lee.

Wilson admits it’s a gamble, but Democrats haven’t won a U.S. Senate election in Utah for 50 years, and she would like to try something different, even if it results in electing someone who is much farther to the right on the political spectrum.

“I’m well aware Evan McMullin would not be as good as a Democrat in terms of my values and what I believe. But I expect he would invite us into the room when he’s making tough decisions. That’s not an opportunity Mike Lee is affording me right now,” Wilson says.

It’s a brutally pragmatic argument and one you don’t often see in today’s hyperpolarized political culture. Even if Democrats decide to kick party politics aside, there is no guarantee McMullin can beat Lee in November.

McAdams also says he would willingly trade McMullin for Lee, even if their politics rarely align.

“You’ll never have a candidate who agrees with you 100% of the time, and losing accomplishes nothing,” McAdams says.

McAdams says he is on board with the plan because he believes Lee is an obstructionist who is unwilling to compromise.

“Washington, D.C., is a dumpster fire. I personally know how broken and dysfunctional it is, and Mike Lee is the ringleader of that dysfunction. He can’t even find his way to bipartisanship on things like roads and bridges,” McAdams says. “We have got to start sending people to Washington who are going to be constructive and work to fix what’s broken.”

But what of Weston? Doesn’t he deserve the opportunity to represent the Democratic party? This clinical assessment of the race shoves him and his political ambitions aside.

Longtime Utah Democrat Quang Dang, who is helping Weston plot his political strategy, says the gambit put forward by McAdams and Wilson will do lasting damage to the party.

“This whole plot to not have a Democratic candidate on the ballot is absurd. Never in the history of this party has this been done,” Dang says. “We have to deal with this gimmick, and gimmicks don’t work in politics, especially Utah politics.”

Weston is not a rookie candidate. He ran against Rep. Chris Stewart in 2020, losing to the Republican by 22 points in Utah’s 2nd Congressional District.

Dang says Democrats who want to push Weston aside for McMullin are making many assumptions. First, Lee likely faces a primary against one or two other Republicans. Both Becky Edwards and Ally Isom are gathering signatures to avoid elimination at the GOP convention. Although Lee is the presumptive favorite, Dang says that’s not a fait accompli, and the political winds could shift.

“Politics is not sports betting. We ought to vote for the candidate that best represents our values and principles, not on who we think is most likely to win,” Dang says.

The problem for Weston or any Democrat running statewide in Utah is simple math. You have to get more votes than your opponent.

Longtime political strategist Reed Galen says the numbers are more favorable for McMullin than Weston, but it’s still a long shot.

“Are there enough Democrats or Democratic-leaning independents in Utah to beat Mike Lee? Are there enough Republican voters who don’t like Mike Lee to cross over and vote for a Democrat? I think the answer to all of those questions is an unequivocal no,” Galen says.

The former Republican and Park City resident helped form the Lincoln Project in 2020 as part of the effort to prevent Donald Trump from winning another term in the White House. He says Democrats are not known for looking at politics pragmatically.

“They lead with their hearts a lot, not with their heads. When it comes to cold calculations, they’re not very good at it. For Democrats who don’t like Mike Lee, there are only two choices in this race: Mike Lee or Evan McMullin,” Galen says.

While this strategy is very rare, it is not unprecedented. In the 2014 Kansas U.S. Senate race, the Democratic nominee, Chad Taylor, dropped out to clear the way for independent businessman Greg Orman. According to Smart Politics, Orman lost by nearly 11 points to Pat Roberts, but the race was much closer than in the past as Republicans won the previous nine U.S. Senate races by an average of 37 points.

The United Utah Party has already thrown its weight behind McMullin, endorsing his candidacy against Lee.

How this plays out will depend on the whims of Democratic delegates who will be selected at the Democratic caucus meetings next week. All of this culminates at the state convention at the end of April.