When looking at the U.S. Senate contest in Utah, the first thing to understand is Sen. Mike Lee is a heavy favorite to win a third term in November. However, with just over two months to go until election day, there are some signs the race could be much more competitive than anticipated.
No single factor suggests Lee is headed toward a defeat in his matchup with independent candidate Evan McMullin.
It’s nearly impossible to knock off an incumbent. The last incumbent U.S. Senator to lose reelection was Bob Bennett in 2010 when he was ousted at the GOP convention, the same year Lee first won election to Congress. In 2018 and 2020, 84% of U.S. Senators successfully won reelection. In 2016, the reelection rate jumped to 93%. The last time fewer than 80% of incumbents in the Senate won another term was 2006 when the rate dipped to an anemic 79.3%.
Lee also has a significant campaign cash advantage over McMullin. The most recent financial disclosures show he has vastly outraised and outspent his opponent. Lee also has twice as much cash in the bank as McMullin.
Usually, those factors would point to a comfortable win in November, which is still the most likely scenario. But there are some signs the election could be much more challenging than Lee would like.
At last week’s GOP State Central Committee, Utah Republican leaders expressed the importance of mobilizing support for Lee. It would be disingenuous to say party leaders are starting to panic about McMullin’s challenge to Lee, but it’s not a stretch to say there is a growing concern.
Gov. Spencer Cox bemoaned the Democratic-controlled Senate and said Utah needed to send Lee back to Washington for another term to help put the GOP back in control.
“We cannot have two more years without a Republican majority in Congress and the Senate. That’s why it’s so important that, as Republicans, we reach out and work with our neighbors to make sure that every member of our delegation is a Republican,” Cox said. “That means Senator Mike Lee needs our support.”
GOP Vice-Chair Jordan Hess echoed Cox’s call to action for Lee.
“It’s our job to talk to our neighbors and help them understand it’s important that Mike Lee be reelected to the Senate,” Hess said. “We need to do all we can to make sure we get him reelected.”
McMullin has said he would not caucus with either Republicans or Democrats if he wins in November to maintain his independence. Hess said that would be a disaster for Utah.
“He will have zero influence in the Senate. He will not be given committee assignments,” Hess said. “He will not be in the room where things happen.”
It’s not just Utah Republicans who are springing to action in support of Lee. The conservative Club for Growth pumped $2.5 million in advertising into Utah attacking McMullin. That is far above the $199,000 they spent to support Lee’s first campaign in 2010 and the $11,000 the group spent helping Lee in 2016.
Club for Growth also made independent expenditures opposing Lee’s Republican challengers Becky Edwards and Ally Isom ahead of the June primary election.
There are some other signs are that November won’t be a cakewalk for Lee. Public opinion polling is scattered, with one recent survey showing Lee with a 14-point lead, while another puts Lee’s lead at just 5%. The FiveThirtyEight.com poll average shows Lee ahead of McMullin by 9.1%.
While Lee is ahead, the margin is much closer than his 29-point win in 2010 and a 41-point victory in 2016.
Late last week, the well-respected election forecasters from the Cook Political Report moved their projection from “solid Republican” to “likely Republican.” They still expect Lee to win in November, but it’s not a slam dunk.
“Count us still skeptics that Lee is in real danger just yet,” the updated forecast reads. “Utah was the state where McMullin notched his highest percentage in 2016, getting 21% to Trump’s 45% and Hillary Clinton’s 27%. Lee remains the heavy favorite in this contest, but McMullin makes this contest worth watching.”
The Cook forecast follows a similar shift toward McMullin from Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball. They still say Lee is the favorite but moved the race rating from “safe Republican” to “likely Republican” in July.
FiveThirtyEight is much less bullish on McMullin’s chances, saying he would triumph over Lee just 3% of the time.
Lee won the June primary election with 62% of the vote.