There are two ways to look at Sen. Mike Lee’s Republican primary election victory. A majority of Republican voters, just over 62%, said he should be the party’s standard-bearer for the third time. But the flip side is that nearly 40% of those same Republicans wanted someone else to be the GOP nominee. It was a solid, but not stellar, primary performance that could be cause for concern in November.
If this were any other year, Lee would be well on his way to an easy win over his Democratic opponent. Utah hasn’t elected a Democrat to statewide office in three decades. The last Democrat to win a seat in the U.S. Senate from Utah was Frank Moss in 1970.
This year is different. Utah Democrats opted to sit the Senate race out instead of sending up the traditional sacrificial lamb candidate.
Lee is facing independent candidate Evan McMullin. Labels aside, Lee and McMullin live in the same part of the political landscape and hold many of the same policy positions.
The most significant difference between the two is former President Donald Trump. Lee has lashed himself tightly to Trump after being one of his most vocal critics in 2016. In the span of four years, he went from calling on Trump to drop out of the race to comparing him to a hero from the Book of Mormon.
Lee has been at the center of some controversy after leaked text messages detailing his efforts to help Trump undo his 2020 election loss to Joe Biden.
On the other hand, McMullin is solidly in the “never Trump” camp, having run against him for president in 2016. Trump endorsed Lee’s reelection bid earlier this year.
Miles Coleman, the associate editor of the election forecasting newsletter Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball newsletter, says McMullin’s conservative politics and Lee’s close relationship with Trump could give him an opening to cleave away Republican voters who are not fond of the former president.
“Utah is a Republican state, but it’s not as Trumpy as some of its neighbors like Wyoming and Idaho,” Coleman says. “Trump rubbed a lot of Mormon voters the wrong way.”
Even though Trump carried Utah in 2016, he only pulled in 45% — which was the lowest among all the states he won that year. In 2020, Utah gave Trump 58% of the vote, which was the lowest level of support for a Republican presidential candidate in the state since Bob Dole in 1996.
Coleman says the example McMullin needs to follow is Sen. Mitt Romney, who usually gets positive job approval ratings from Utah voters.
“Romney sort of draws support from everywhere. He gets a certain amount of Republicans. A lot of Democrats like him, and he does very well with independents,” Coleman said. “The challenge McMullin faces is trying to take Romney’s approval rating and translate that into an actual voting coalition.”
Romney does not plan an endorsement in the race, which Coleman says could give moderate Republicans and independent voters the green light to cast a ballot for McMullin.
Lee still must be considered the favorite heading into November’s election. It’s tough to knock off an entrenched incumbent in Republican-dominated Utah. But the primary election results should set off a few warning bells for his campaign.
Lee ran well in many southern and rural parts of the state, which happen to be the more “Trumpier” parts of Utah. For instance, Lee was at 78% in Washington County, where Trump got 74% in 2020 and 68% in 2016.
Lee only pulled in 63% support in GOP-heavy Utah County. He received 83% of the vote in 2016 and 78% in 2010. McMullin finished second behind Trump in Utah County in the 2016 presidential race with 30% of the vote, suggesting he could make some political hay unless Lee finds a way to get those voters to come home to him in November.
Lee struggled a bit among GOP primary voters in Salt Lake and Davis Counties, barely scoring a majority. Lee needs to do more to shore up his support in those two population centers before November.
This year’s race promises much more intrigue than Utah’s usual U.S. Senate contest. Coleman’s publication recently shifted their forecast slightly away from Lee from “safe Republican” to “likely Republican.”
Not everybody is convinced of McMullin’s chances, though. Another prominent forecaster, the Cook Political Report, still lists the contest as “solid Republican.”