Evan McMullin isn’t just running against two-term Republican Sen. Mike Lee this fall, but what the independent candidate sees as a need to protect democracy from “extremist” attacks.
“Things have to change. We must fix our broken politics and renew our commitment to our founding ideals and to America’s future,” McMullin wrote in a platform of priorities shared with The Salt Lake Tribune.
To do that, he is proposing and voicing support for measures that are meant to target the money that passes through the hands of lawmakers, bolster voting rights and limit the division sowed by the two-party system.
The proposals are consistent with talking points he has championed since the beginning of his campaign — at a recent rally, McMullin said he isn’t just running for Senate to defeat Lee, “We’re united by our commitment to fix the broken politics of Washington.”
According to James Curry, a professor at the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics whose research focuses on politics and policymaking in Congress, this approach is expected of a candidate running against an incumbent.
“Candidates have long run for Congress by running against Congress,” he told The Salt Lake Tribune. “In other words, they run by attacking the institution and those within it and playing off of Americans’ deeply held skepticisms of politics, dislike of partisan bickering and low approval of Congress.”
As part of the plan, McMullin said he will work to stop members of Congress from trading individual stocks — something lawmakers are currently considering. The Washington Post reported last week that a bill to ban the practice among lawmakers, which has been pushed by a bipartisan, bicameral group of legislators, may get a House vote this month.
He also aims to prohibit the use of leadership PACs to raise money. Leadership PACs, according to the Federal Election Commission, are “directly or indirectly established, financed, maintained or controlled by a candidate or an individual holding a federal office” and are often established “to support candidates for federal and nonfederal offices.”
“These sham campaign finance entities have become a vehicle for lawmakers to spend special interest contributions on personal expenses,” the plan reads.
McMullin pointed The Tribune toward a report from Issue One, a nonprofit working to expose the role of money in politics, and Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan group that says it advocates for a “more transparent, accountable and inclusive democracy.” Issue One found that some lawmakers use money donated to their leadership PACs not for campaign contributions, but instead as a slush fund for personal perks.
Eliminating the fundraising groups, Curry said, is unlikely. “Leadership PACs are means by which lawmakers raise and donate money to each other, and they aren’t going away.”
Another priority listed by McMullin is instating a lifetime ban on lawmakers from becoming lobbyists, and keeping them and their families from receiving income from lobbying firms. The former CIA officer doesn’t want lobbyists working on behalf of foreign governments or corporations to be able to make contributions to congressional candidates.
The U.S. government began aggressively regulating lobbying in the 1900s, and much of lobbying today must meet guidelines laid out in the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995, which was strengthened by the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007.
“Corruption and scandals around lobbying are actually quite rare in D.C., and are typically prosecuted,” Curry said.
Prioritzing voters’ rights
Reforming the Electoral Count Act, which could pass before McMullin has the opportunity to join the Senate, is a top priority for McMullin. Utah Sen. Mitt Romney is among a bipartisan group of lawmakers that introduced legislation to update the act by establishing guidelines for certifying and counting electoral votes for President.
The push to reform the 1887 act came after former President Donald Trump and his supporters attempted to stop the certification of electoral votes after he was defeated in 2020. That November, just after Trump’s defeat, Lee texted then-White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, appearing to aid Trump’s efforts to overturn the results.
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 President Joe Biden may appoint separate electors for Trump.
“Senator Lee’s weaponization of weaknesses in our system to try to overturn millions of votes and overthrow the government is one of the most egregious betrayals of the Constitution and the American identity in our history,” McMullin’s plan reads. “And the continued lies about election fraud, which Lee still promotes, are fueling a dangerous rise in violent political extremism that must be stopped.”
McMullin adds he will work to protect voting rights and ensure American voters have “meaningful and reasonable access to exercise the fundamental right to vote.”
“There is a cross-partisan majority of Americans who want to protect the fundamental right to vote,” McMullin told The Tribune, clarifying the point. “One thing I would work to do immediately is to restore the Voting Rights Act to the version that was supported and signed by President George W. Bush, prior to it being gutted by the Supreme Court.”
Bush reauthorized the Voting Rights Act for another 25 years during his final term in office, but last year, in several different rulings, the U.S. Supreme Court limited the act’s authority.
Gerrymandering is also an issue McMullin wants to tackle. In an interview with The Tribune’s editorial board in August, he said, “I think the recent gerrymander of the state did marginalize most Utahns. And I will say that partisan gerrymandering is gross political corruption.”
But eliminating gerrymandering will be a difficult task, Curry said. “Not only is partisan gerrymandering hard to define, but legislative efforts to end or alter it are very partisan.”
A close race
The last component of McMullin’s plan is to bring his efforts to build a cross-partisan movement to the Senate. He pledged to vote on the merits of a bill, not on party or ideology of origin, and work with other senators who act independently of their parties.
“I’ve spoken with senators who are also committed to changing our broken politics and working together to help the country overcome the major challenges it faces,” McMullin told The Tribune.
The independent candidate also wrote in his plan that he would create opportunities for senators to work across party lines, like holding joint lunches and changing the seating on the Senate floor to be alphabetical instead of party based.
“I’ll point out that, despite public perceptions to the contrary, almost everything Congress passes is bipartisan, and bipartisan legislating is just as common today as it was 50 years ago,” Curry said. “... This is something that sounds nice, but attacks a problem that doesn’t really exist to the degree people think it does.”
The platform document also includes numerous jabs at Lee, saying, “He is one of only three sitting U.S. Senators who has voted against every single piece of major bipartisan legislation in the past 18 months. ... Lee has also shut down the government and consistently failed to negotiate in good faith with his colleagues to get things done. Utahns deserve better.”
Lee’s campaign disagreed with McMullin’s accusations.
“I imagine there’s little easier than parachuting into Utah every election season armed with inaccurate accusations and policy ideas that ignore the complexities of actual lawmaking,” Matt Lusty, a spokesperson for Lee’s campaign, said in an email in response to the document.
“Standing up for Utah families against President Biden’s runaway spending and inflation — even when the crowd is eager to go with the flow — takes strength,” said Lusty, adding that Lee adheres to “conservative, constitutional principles” that represent Utahns’ values.
The competition between Lee and McMullin is turning into one of the closest Senate races Utah has seen in decades. A Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll released last week shows the candidates within two points of each other.
According to Curry, while appealing to voters, many of the policies outlined in the document are not groundbreaking.
“I would not read anything in here as a serious, substantive policy proposal, or anything new. It’s meant to sound good in order to win votes,” said Curry. “And to be clear, I don’t mean this as a criticism — this is what candidates do.”