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Related: Sen. Mike Lee was practically born conservative. Does his support for Trump give Evan McMullin an opening in red Utah?
Evan McMullin crosses his legs, exposing pink-striped socks under his jeans, and pops open an orange LaCroix.
He’s in the back seat of a Honda Pilot parked under the water tower at Thanksgiving Point.
The independent U.S. Senate candidate spends most weekends traveling across Utah, meeting voters and fielding questions.
“Let’s get some Coldplay. My answers would be a lot better if we were listening to Coldplay,” McMullin tells the driver, Kelsey Koenen Witt, who handles communication for his campaign. The British alternative band has been his go-to listening for years, he said
McMullin’s first stop on this day in late August is at a home in suburban Lindon, which stretches from the shore of Utah Lake to the base of Mount Timpanogos.
Koenen Witt has game-planned with him for how he might sneak away from the Lindon gathering into an upstairs room for a live interview with CNN’s Jim Acosta.
They’ve done this before — run an underdog campaign against a Republican he sees as a threat to democracy, that is.
In 2016, during his hurried run for president, McMullin’s drink of choice was Diet Coke — a trope for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, like himself. Nowadays, the Senate candidate sips seltzer water between campaign stops.
And the fuel for his Senate race isn’t the only way he’s evolved since being KO’d six years ago. He’s also shifted his target audience. When McMullin launched the presidential campaign, he aimed to be the candidate for “principled conservatives” who didn’t want to cast their vote for Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton.
This time around, he’s running to unite Utah Republicans and Democrats against what McMullin sees as a common enemy between the warring parties: “extremism.”
“The extremes that threaten the future of our republic have forced the rest of us to say, well wait a second, you know, maybe we have far more in common than we thought we had,” McMullin said from the back seat. “Those of us who look at Jan. 6, for example, and say, that’s unacceptable, we can’t have something like that in America — I think we’re doing a lot more listening to each other now to find a healthier way forward.”
‘Well, somebody has to’
A Provo-born congressional staffer and former CIA officer with no name recognition at the time, McMullin seemed an unlikely presidential candidate in 2016. But he was part of a circle of Republicans who were becoming increasingly worried about the two options America’s major political parties had put forward.
At the time, even rookie Utah senator Lee worried about a Trump presidency, voting in 2016 for the hometown candidate and fellow Latter-day Saint. Lee has since cast his lot with the twice-impeached former president.
To run for president, McMullin quit his job as a congressional staffer, leaving him without health insurance. He became a target for vitriol from the Trump supporters, and at a Florida rally after the election, Trump gave him the nickname “McMuffin” — a joke McMullin first made about himself. While their public personas and demeanor couldn’t have been more different, McMullin’s policy beliefs on popular conservative issues didn’t stray too far from the Republican nominee.
“Obamacare has failed American families, driving up costs and reducing access to quality healthcare,” McMullin wrote on his 2016 campaign website, using language aligned with the GOP.
The messaging about his conservative bonafides continued with his stand on abortion.
“From conception to death — and any time in between — life is precious and we have a responsibility to protect it. A culture that subsidizes abortion on demand runs counter to the fundamental American belief in the potential of every person — it undermines the dignity of mother and child alike,” he said on the website.
Ultimately, his conservative values alone weren’t enough to attract an electorate. The race wasn’t even close.
On election night — after entering the presidential race late and only being placed on the ballot in a handful of states — McMullin’s campaign finished with a half percent of the popular vote. He did much better in Utah, earning 21.5% of votes and placing third behind Trump and Clinton.
Conservative Florida-based political consultant Joel Searby ran the McMullin effort in 2016, the same year he left the GOP. Searby said the outcome of the election was disappointing for McMullin and team, but the Never Trumpers’ work wasn’t over.
“We edited his (concession) speech that night to reflect what we called the new conservative movement, and ensure those who were listening that this was not the last chapter,” Searby said. The loss was ultimately just the beginning for the newly aspiring politician.
[Here’s how Utahns can register to vote in the 2022 midterm election]
Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger, a Republican Trump detractor, was also recruited by conservative operatives like Searby and Bill Kristol to make an independent presidential bid in 2016, but Kinzinger turned them down.
The congressman — a U.S. Air Force officer who serves on the House Foreign Affairs Committee — considers himself friends with McMullin, a relationship that began when the then-congressional staffer accompanied Kinzinger on a trip to Turkey to assist the Free Syrian Army.
Kinzinger said that although he received the credit for creating alliances between paramilitary organizations, McMullin was responsible. “He really did bring groups together, you know, informed both sides, including myself, of all the details of the other and built trust,” he said.
“I think this election, win, lose or draw, quite honestly, is going to provide a roadmap for how that can work in the future,” Kinzinger said of his friend’s senate race. “It doesn’t mean it’s going to happen in every state everywhere, but it means it can be a growing movement of folks that recognize that the biggest threat right now is to our democracy.”
Late one night on the same trip, Kinzinger said he was drinking nightcaps at the hotel bar and prodded McMullin to partake.
“I’m like, ‘Come on, man. Just one.’ He wouldn’t do it. So, you know, his Mormon creds are strong,” Kinzinger quipped.
Recalling the moment in 2016 when he told McMullin he wasn’t going to run for president, Kinzinger said, “He’s basically like, ‘Well, somebody has to.’”
McMullin’s tendency to take on a difficult task that no one else wants to bear isn’t a new one, CIA colleagues said it was his nature while with the agency.
Michael Taylor, a CIA colleague of McMullin’s who moved to Utah just before the 2016 election, said the two became friends because of their shared Latter-day Saint faith: They both refused to drink alcohol while developing contacts; both had an aversion to lying and had to come to terms with a certain level of deception required by the job; and both had the goal of one day getting married and starting a family — a difficult task for constantly traveling CIA operatives.
Over the eight years the two worked together, Taylor said McMullin willingly took an assignment in a “very high risk, dangerous, high burnout place” where most officers would spend a year, then have their pick at a “high end of the cushion” relocation. McMullin, though, opted to continue in that assignment year after year.
Taylor recalled asking McMullin why he didn’t take a break and go somewhere less taxing. “He said, ‘You know, man, we can’t do a whole lot hiding behind the security zone. It’s time to do more. There’s guys dying there every day and I’m not going to go over there and not do all I can.”
For years after the 2016 loss, McMullin mulled his next step. He continued to criticize Trump and his base, launched an organization focused on holding the former president accountable, and got married at Sundance Resort last summer, gaining five kids.
The mulling turned again to action in early 2021. The urge to once again put his name out there as an alternative not to Trump, but someone who at a September rally he described as a “sycophant” for Trump, came in the months following the Jan. 6 insurrection.
Soon after the Capitol riot, he reached out to former Democratic congressman Ben McAdams, who had just lost reelection to Utah Rep. Burgess Owens, urging him to stay engaged in politics.
“He said to me at the time, ‘We need people, Republicans and Democrats, who are willing to put what’s right for this country ahead of their own personal interests,’” McAdams said.
According to McAdams, by late summer of that year, McMullin had started talking to him about running for office again himself — this time against Lee, now a two-term senator.
As the plan to run again came to fruition, he looked to both parties for senior staff.
McMullin tapped Andrew Roberts, a longtime Democratic politico who ran McAdams’ congressional campaigns, as his campaign manager, while Koenen Witt is an alum of the Sutherland Institute, a conservative think tank. This is her second campaign with the independent.
In this race, McMullin is also placing his hopes on being a more comfortable alternative for some voters. From the beginning of the campaign, McMullin’s plan was to find a path to the Senate by recruiting Democrats to join his unorthodox alliance, Roberts said.
“Evan did not want to pursue a Don Quixote endeavor. … He’d been there, done that,” Roberts said. “And so part of the process of deciding that Evan should, in fact, throw his name into the ring against Mike Lee was believing that there was a viable pathway for this cross-partisan coalition.”
Many of his Democratic supporters, like McAdams and Roberts, didn’t vote for McMullin in 2016. But Utah Democrats, who haven’t been represented in the U.S. Senate since 1976, voted this spring to join the more moderate McMullin’s coalition instead of running their own candidate in exchange for a chance at expelling Lee from office.
Kristol, a co-founder of The Weekly Standard, also thinks McMullin could make it to Congress.
“I admired what he did (in 2016), and I admire what he’s doing now — when he has a real chance both to defeat an ineffectual and Trump-acquiescent senator, and also to begin to change the dysfunctional polarization in Washington,” Kristol said in an email.
Although the election started with incumbent Lee being considered a shoo-in, analysts in recent weeks have been hedging their bets. In June, Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball changed its rating of the race from “Safe Republican” to “Likely Republican,” and the Cook Political Report last month moved its forecast of the race from “Solid R” to “Likely R.”
McMullin’s most recent internal polling puts him a point ahead of Lee, while the Republican’s polling gives the incumbent an 18-point lead.
Beyond “protecting democracy,” a constant talking point for McMullin since his entrance into politics, the policy priorities listed on the Senate candidate’s website are not as aggressively conservative as those in 2016. McMullin says he wants to lower health care costs, get a handle on inflation while reducing the national debt, improve Utah’s air quality and conserve water.
He also says on his website that he wants to “Keep America safe” by modernizing and reforming the military, protecting police funding and securing U.S. borders. How he executes some of those priorities could alienate the Democrats in his coalition.
Asked about Utah’s abortion trigger law while driving to the Lindon speaking event, McMullin said, “It’s a good starting place,” before adding that lawmakers now also need to strengthen the safety net that makes child rearing more doable and address unanswered questions related to prenatal care.
“What are we doing actually to help women? … We need to be more compassionate about women finding themselves in impossible situations,” said McMullin, explaining that his marriage last summer to his wife Emily, who was then a widowed mother of five, expanded his understanding of the challenges women face in taking on motherhood.
What McMullin says he and Democrats agree on is keeping states from going to “extremes” in regulating reproductive rights with measures like banning contraceptives and keeping women from traveling to obtain an abortion.
Once at the Lindon house party, guests grilled McMullin on that issue and more.
Among them was Heather Prime, of Pleasant Grove. She is a mother, housekeeper and one of the Democratic delegates who voted to join McMullin’s coalition instead of putting forward a member of her own party.
“I’m following him because of everything he was saying about being a person who gets things done,” Prime says, referring to remarks he gave minutes earlier in front of a few dozen people seated on a sectional sofa and miscellaneous chairs. “I’ve been craving that for years.”