Utah Democrats back independent Evan McMullin for U.S. Senate in a historic vote

The party delegates hoped that by supporting an independent, they would have a better chance of unseating Sen. Mike Lee.

Murray • In an extraordinary move on Saturday, Utah Democrats voted to back independent candidate Evan McMullin over Democrat Kael Weston to challenge the winner of the Republican primary later this year.

At the Utah Democratic Convention at Cottonwood High School in Murray, McMullin received 782 of the delegates’ votes, around 57%, to Weston’s 594 votes, preliminary results show.

It’s an unprecedented measure for Democrats in a state with an all-Republican congressional delegation. Convention delegates grappled between party loyalty or backing an outsider, who in supporters’ minds, increased the likelihood of defeating a Republican in November. Democrats were motivated by the prospect of unseating Sen. Mike Lee, who is running for his third term this year and won the support of around 75% of Republican delegates at their convention Saturday.

Lee still needs to defeat challengers Ally Isom and Becky Edwards in his June primary to face McMullin in the general election.

“Democrats are putting country over party,” McMullin said after the vote. “This is our democracy and, yes, it can be messy at times as we saw today, but it’s sure a heck of a lot better than the alternative.”

Weston said he accepted the outcome of what delegates decided and that it sparked an important dialogue.

“Of course, you want to be the candidate that walks out with a unanimous degree of support, but I knew this was always going to be an important conversation to have and I think with a great team, and a lot of supporters who drove from all across the state, it was a real conversation,” Weston said. “Today was a crossroads and a certain path was taken. It’s a path that has not been taken before.”

McMullin is no stranger to Utah voters. The former CIA operations officer and member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints ran as an independent during the 2016 U.S. presidential election and garnered 21.5% of Utahns’ votes. In the months leading up to the convention, he received endorsements from high-profile Democrats like former Utah Rep. Ben McAdams and Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson.

(Briana Scroggins | Special to The Tribune) U.S. Senate candidate Kael Weston speaks at the Utah Democratic convention at Cottonwood High School in Murray on Saturday, April 23, 2022.

Convention chaos

After a procedural morning of introducing nominees for state races, Wilson made a motion to ask the party “to join Evan McMullin’s independent coalition to beat Mike Lee.”

For the next two hours, infighting, debate and insults between Democrats ensued on the convention floor.

Several delegates booed Wilson and a shouting match broke out between the camps, prompting Utah Democratic Convention Chair Jeff Merchant to say he would not tolerate anyone speaking out of order. One delegate in the crowd, Rob Wabley, shouted “Shame on you!” and “Spineless!”

“We should put forward a Democrat,” the Vernal resident said.

“I understand that there are a lot of people that have a lot of opinions of this,” Merchant said, asking delegates to share their opinion at a microphone.

After a pair of short recesses, Wilson amended her motion to offer delegates an option; either nominate uncontested Weston or the party should join McMullin’s independent coalition. Both Weston and McMullin’s campaigns approved of the language during the recess.

Ben Anderson, communications director for the Utah Democratic Party, said the final results would be released sometime next week, but any changes would be minimal and would not alter any outcomes.

Mike Lee looms large over Democrats

In his opening remarks, Merchant told the crowded high school auditorium that he felt honored to be part of what “will be both a historic and exciting day today.”

It’s been more than half a century since a Democrat was elected as a U.S. Senator to represent Utah. While several booths at the convention focused on progressive issues like women’s reproductive rights and improving air quality, one message stood out: Get Lee out of office.

(Briana Scroggins | Special to The Tribune) The Utah Democratic convention held at Cottonwood High School in Murray on Saturday, April 23, 2022.

In a report by CNN released last week, texts sent by Lee to former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows indicated the senator had looked into inquiries about overturning the 2020 presidential election results in favor of President Donald Trump. It’s the latest controversy surrounding Lee that has drawn ire from Utah Democrats.

Michelle Palmer, the Morgan County party chair, told The Salt Lake Tribune that Saturday’s vote for McMullin reflected the moderate, rural influence of the party.

“They’re looking at it logically,” Palmer said of Democrats like Wilson and McAdams. “We all think Kael is a great candidate and a great guy. But we are focused on defeating Mike Lee.”

“I think Mike Lee really had the opportunity to change the course of history. I think he blew it,” said Lee Brinton, 64, of Murray, who describes himself as a moderate. “There’s a deep streak of hypocrisy in the Republican Party.”

Brinton, who said he isn’t a delegate, passed out homemade pamphlets at Saturday’s convention explaining why he supports McMullin.

“Now, as the only chance to get Mike Lee out, I’m asking you to PLEASE support independent candidate Evan McMullin,” the pamphlet read.

(Briana Scroggins | Special to The Tribune) Independent U.S. Sen. candidate Evan McMullin speaks with delegates during the Utah Democratic convention at Cottonwood High School in Murray on Saturday, April 23, 2022.

Utah GOP Chair Carson Jorgensen told delegates at Saturday’s Republican convention about Democrats supporting Evan McMullin in the U.S. Senate race.

”They don’t believe in their own platform enough to get behind their candidate,” Jorgensen said.

He gave a stark warning to GOP delegates: ”I don’t think you grasp the gravity of the situation. We need to show up and vote, or it could be trouble.”

Other Democratic victories

The majority of delegates voted in favor of Diane Lewis to chair the Utah Democratic Party. She earned 61.1% of the votes compared to her rival Quang Dang’s nearly 39%, preliminary results show.

In Utah’s 2nd Congressional District race, Nick Mitchell, a scientist, beat his challenger Steve Hartwick by 67 votes, according to preliminary results.

Democrat Glenn Wright, chair of the Summit County Council, fended off his Democratic opponent Archie Williams III, winning 91.2% of the vote for the Democratic nominee in Utah’s 3rd Congressional District race.

High school teacher Carol Lear was selected with 80% of the vote as the Democratic pick to run for District 6 of the Utah State School Board of Education.

Uncontested Democrats Darlene McDonald and Rick Jones are both moving forward in Utah’s 4th and 1st Congressional District races, respectively.

Wayne removed from the ballot

Ahead of the convention, Kerry Wayne, a candidate for Utah Democratic Party vice-chair, was kicked off the ballot after an investigation reportedly found that he engaged in insubordination and harassing behavior toward other party members.

According to a copy of the disciplinary report obtained by The Tribune, Wayne called one female staffer a “Crazy Bipolar Psycho B**tch (sic)” in an email. When Wayne was informed of the preliminary outcome of the investigation, the letter says Wayne then referred to Discipline Committee Chair Jackie Orton with a similar pejorative and attacked the masculinity of Merchant, a former Democratic Party chair.

Wayne denied the allegations on Saturday afternoon, calling the accusations “frustrating” and “troubling.” He also added that he appealed the report.

“This whole thing is basically a political hit,” he said.

(Briana Scroggins | Special to The Tribune) Jeff Merchant at the Utah Democratic Convention.

Wayne has been barred from serving as a Democratic delegate, running or holding any party office or winning the party nomination for any elective office for an indefinite period of time. He’s also banned from attending party events.

Although he was removed from a list of candidates on the party’s convention website, his candidate profile was still active on Saturday.

Tribune politics reporter Bryan Schott and politics editor Jeff Parrott contributed to this story.