Republican Mike Lee and independent Evan McMullin didn’t pull their punches during their first and only debate of Utah’s 2022 midterm elections.
The two U.S. Senate candidates traded premeditated jabs in front of a full audience at Utah Valley University’s Ragan Theater — and only moments before Utah elections officials began sending mail-in ballots to voters.
Monday’s event took on added importance as the contest has quickly become the most competitive Senate race Utah has seen in at least 50 years. Publicly available polling is swinging wildly, either giving Lee a large lead or suggesting McMullin is starting to pull ahead.
That urgency was evident early on as the two men sparred over the 2020 presidential election and the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Lee deflected a question from moderator Doug Wright about whether Joe Biden won the 2020 election, replying that Biden is the president, then cast doubt on the legitimacy of other state’s elections processes.
“Joe Biden won the only election that matters, which is the Electoral College,” Lee replied, pivoting to suggesting there may have been errors in the way some states conducted their elections in 2020.
Lee has come under fire for leaked text messages with former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows revealing his efforts to assist Donald Trump’s efforts to help him overturn the 2020 election results. At one point Lee told Meadows he was working “14 hours a day” calling state legislators in the run-up to Jan. 6 trying to find a path for Trump’s team to stop the certification of Biden’s win.
“People expressed concern about the number of states using universal mail-in ballots for the first time. There were a lot of questions about ballot harvesting and things like that. But, ultimately what matters is the electoral college,” Lee said.
That prompted McMullin to criticize Lee for his role in Trump’s plot.
“You talking about the importance of the Electoral College is rich. You knew how important it was when you urged the White House to find fake electors to overturn the will of the people,” McMullin said.
Both men had clearly anticipated this exchange. McMullin accused Lee of betraying his oath to the Constitution, leading Lee to pull out his copy of the Constitution and waved it in the air as he demanded an apology from his challenger.
“You have betrayed your oath to the Constitution,” McMullin said. “You’re doing a tremendous disservice to this country.”
“You know that’s not true. You know that’s not true,” Lee shot back. “You, sir, owe me an apology.”
Lee claimed vindication since he ultimately did not go along with an effort by other Republican senators to reject the electoral vote.
Moderator Doug Wright had difficulty reigning in the audience, which was packed with Lee supporters. He scolded them several times for disrupting the proceedings with boos or applause. In a cheeky bit of coordinated defiance, Lee supporters cleared their throats loudly every time Sen. Mitt Romney’s name was invoked from the stage.
There was little agreement on any issue between the two.
For instance, McMullin called the Jan. 6 riot a “violent insurrection with the intent of overthrowing the American public,” while Lee characterized the mob that attacked the Capitol as people who “behaved very badly.”
The incumbent praised the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade for returning the regulation of abortion to the states, while McMullin was critical of Lee for supporting state laws that enacted extreme limitations on reproductive healthcare.
Lee focused much of his rhetoric on Monday night toward shoring up his support from Republican voters who may be considering casting their vote for McMullin. He even brought Texas Republican Congressman Chip Roy, who was in Utah to campaign for Lee over the weekend, as a guest to the debate.
Party loyalty could be a significant factor in this race. Utah Democrats didn’t nominate a Senate candidate, clearing the field for McMullin to set up what is essentially a one-on-one matchup.
Several times on Monday, Lee appealed to Republicans that partisan control of the Senate could hang in the balance with their vote, accusing McMullin of being a “closeted Democrat.”
“Perhaps I should have just called him a Democrat. He has been endorsed by the Utah Democratic Party. He’s consistently criticized Republicans and Republican policies,” Lee said in a post-debate press conference.
McMullin attacked Lee for being too focused on partisan politics, at one point calling him a “partisan bootlicker.” McMullin has said he does not plan to caucus with either party if he wins.
It’s possible this race might decide which party controls the U.S. Senate after the upcoming midterm elections. Former Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, who was in attendance at the Monday debate, had a message for Republicans who may not have made up their minds yet.
“One of the things every Republican should consider is control of the Senate. I think it would be a little bit embarrassing if Utah was the state that kept the Republicans from winning control,” Herbert said.
Herbert has so far declined to endorse either candidate in the race.