Evan McMullin, standing amid dozens of signs plastered to the walls that read “Beat Lee” and “Protect Democracy,” called Sen. Mike Lee a “sycophant” for former President Donald Trump and criticized what he sees as extremism and division in politics while speaking at a rally in downtown Salt Lake City on Wednesday evening.
The independent candidate looking to unseat the two-term senator said that after Lee voted for McMullin in the 2016 presidential election, “he quickly became a loyal sycophant for the aspiring authoritarian, trading away his oath to the Constitution to serve the unconstitutional ambitions of that one man.”
Joining McMullin were Michael Steele, a former Maryland lieutenant governor and chair of the Republican National Committee from 2009-2010, and Ben McAdams, a Democrat who represented Utah’s 4th Congressional District from 2019-2021. Former KSL TV anchor Bruce Lindsay also spoke at the event.
McMullin referenced texts between Lee and Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff under Trump, that appear to show he encouraged Trump in his efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election. Lee defended the texts in a June interview on Fox News, saying he was investigating the rumors that legislators in several battleground states won by Joe Biden may appoint electors for Donald Trump.
“After all your efforts to undermine our nation, you still have the nerve to claim to be a constitutional conservative? Mike Lee, you are no constitutional conservative,” said McMullin, later calling Lee a “constitutional con man.”
As the crowd booed, McMullin recalled Lee likening Trump to Book of Mormon character Captain Moroni and said the comparison “disgraceful and false.”
A former CIA officer, McMullin bemoaned the division that marks American politics today, which he said is exacerbated by those who supported conspiracies like those of election fraud spread after the 2020 election.
Referencing his pioneer ancestors, McMullin said, “Right now it often feels like the division in our national politics is insurmountable. But our history shows that Utah can be, and still must be, the haven of our hopes.”
Steele praised McMullin as a “common sense conservative” and touted his status as an independent as a benefit, saying his candidacy “clarifies how much we need leaders who will speak truth to power, have the courage and conviction to lead, and are without hesitation independent like my man Evan.”
The former RNC chairman has long been a vocal Trump critic and in 2020 endorsed Joe Biden as president.
He took jabs at Lee, saying after he voted for McMullin, he abandoned conservatism to “become a willing cheerleader for anything and everything Donald Trump said.” Trump, he argued earlier in his speech, is not a conservative, and the “cult of personality” backing him is instead oriented around “white nationalism and insurrection.”
From the other side of the aisle, McAdams also had harsh words about Lee.
“Let me tell you something — Mike Lee has changed, and Utah needs and deserves better,” he said.
McAdams blamed both the Democratic and Republican parties for a “broken” political system driven by money, which he said he observed while in Congress.
“When I served in Congress, I honestly couldn’t imagine that it would get any worse. And then three days after I left Congress, on Jan. 6, it got a lot worse,” he said.
McMullin, McAdams said, has “outstanding character,” which is one of the reasons he is supporting him.
“He can return integrity and honesty to the United States Senate,” McAdams said. “He will speak truth to power and bring people together to achieve common goals. The coalition that Evan is building of patriotic Democrats, independents and Republicans is unprecedented and it is a model for our country.”
Kevin Herd, a children’s furniture maker from South Jordan who identifies as a “dyed-in-the-wool conservative Republican,” said he supports McMullin because he sees Lee as a “brown-nosing” Trump supporter.
“He just lost me on Jan. 6,” Herd said of Lee.
Two friends — Karina Morales, a centrist who works for FamilySearch, and Michele Rivera, a data analyst and self-described left-progressive — also showed up to the rally, supporting McMullin.
“I feel like ... we have an opportunity to enter discourse instead of being so extremist in our views,” said Morales, with a McMullin T-shirt tucked under her arm.
Rivera, already wearing her McMullin campaign merchandise, said, “We need to be more open to hearing people’s different opinions, and not just be so hard-set on our own opinions all the time, because there are people with different life experiences. ... I am looking for a politician that is willing to work with all sides.”
McMullin and Lee are scheduled to debate each other Oct. 17 at Utah Valley University. Late last month, the candidates went back and forth on Twitter over what McMullin alleged was a failure by the Lee campaign to respond to the Utah Debate Commission before its deadline to agree on a date to spar.
According to spokesperson Matt Lusty, Lee’s campaign is in the process of planning a few events of its own, though the dates have not yet been finalized. Lusty said in an email that the campaign is hoping to host guests from throughout the state and country.
While internal and external polls forecasting the results of the race have had varying results, it appears the race is getting closer. The Cook Political Report in August changed its projection for the Utah Senate race from “solid Republican” to “likely Republican.”
“Together, we are so much stronger than the forces of extremism, corrupting special interests and blind party tribalism that have affected our great nation,” McMullin said, later adding, “The coalition isn’t coming together just to defeat Mike Lee. We’re united by our commitment to fix the broken politics of Washington.”