Utah Sen. Mike Lee wins reelection, beating independent challenger Evan McMullin in unprecedented Senate race

‘Utah has spoken loudly and clearly,’ Lee said on election night.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sen. Mike Lee makes his victory speech at the Utah Republican Party election night party at the Hyatt Regency in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022.

Para leer este artículo en español, haz clic aquí.

Utah Sen. Mike Lee defeated independent challenger Evan McMullin on Tuesday night, in what has been the closest and most expensive U.S. Senate competition Utah has seen in decades.

As of 11:35 p.m. on Election Day, Lee led McMullin 55% to 41%.

Lee secured his third term in the Senate, drawing Republicans would one seat closer to capturing a majority in the lawmaking body.

The senator gathered with other Republicans at the swanky Hyatt Regency — the newest addition to downtown Salt Lake City’s skyline — while McMullin and his supporters came together at a theater in Taylorsville.

In a speech declaring himself victorious, Lee said he was grateful to residents of the state, calling the race “daunting and humbling.”

“Utah has spoken loudly and clearly,” Lee said, referring to Republicans as “liberty champions.” He continued, “The values of the Democratic Party have failed us to the point that red states are having none of it.”

The incumbent promised effective and aggressive oversight of the Biden administration, saying, ”We’re going to have some opportunity to go on the offensive and make a difference in the lives of individual Americans. We still have so much to do.”

After taking the stage to tell supporters he had conceded the race to Lee in a somber concession speech Tuesday evening, McMullin said, “I truly hope that (Lee) upholds his oath to the Constitution during this upcoming term.”

“We’ve come together in a historic way and this effort — our effort — has shown the country there is another way forward, a constructive way forward,” McMullin said.

“In the coming days, our struggle for the American republic may enter a new, more critical phase — a phase in which fear, demagoguery and ambitions of despotism cast their dark shadow over our nation,” he said, becoming emotional, before exiting. “But remember, that the darker the clouds, the more clearly light and truth show a better way forward. This is our cause.”

At the campaign party for McMullin — whose run relies on an attempt to bring together what he called a “cross-partisan coalition” of Republicans, Democrats and independents — his supporters were heard cheering for both Republican and Democratic candidates’ victories as they watched a CNN livestream of nationwide election results.

The unusual competition between the two conservative candidates has drawn national attention and an unprecedented amount of money. Lee has raised nearly double what he did last election cycle, and together, the candidates have spent nearly $16 million trying to beat each other. And according to OpenSecrets, when outside spenders are included, this race has cost north of $35 million.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Independent U.S. Senate candidate Evan McMullin gives a concession speech at the Mid-Valley Performing Arts Center in Taylorsville on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Independent U.S. Senate candidate Evan McMullin gives a wave to supporters before leaving the stage after his concession speech at the Mid-Valley Performing Arts Center in Taylorsville, on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022.

As Republicans and Democrats vied for control of the Senate, the state’s Democratic Party voted to back the independent McMullin — who swore not to caucus with either major party — over putting forward its own candidate for the seat. That move has been a point of criticism used by Lee and his supporters, as the two candidates debated who the true “principled conservative” was.

Lee was first elected to the Senate in 2010 at the height of the Tea Party movement, beating three-term incumbent Republican Bob Bennett at the state Republican Party’s convention.

He has often found himself on the fringes of the party. In 2017, following his last election, The New York Times ranked Lee the most conservative member of the Senate based on his voting record.

McMullin, a Latter-day Saint and former CIA agent, became a household name in Utah in 2016 when he left the Republican Party and entered the presidential race as an independent to offer an alternative to Hillary Clinton and former President Donald Trump.

Lee voted for McMullin in that election, but later became a dedicated supporter of Trump. He backed the former president for reelection in 2020, comparing him to Book of Mormon hero Captain Moroni at a rally in Arizona.

Since 2016, McMullin softened his approach to some of the views he espoused as a presidential candidate. When it comes to abortion, for example, he moved away from absolute opposition to the practice to — while maintaining that he is “pro-life” — saying states should be limited from going to extremes like banning contraceptives and prohibiting women from crossing state lines to obtain an abortion.

And McMullin has continued to be a vocal critic of Trump and his supporters, including Lee.

A focus of the race were texts that Lee sent to then-White House chief of staff Mark Meadows two years ago after Trump lost in 2020. Lee appeared to be advising Trump on his efforts to overturn the election results, but has repeatedly defended the interaction, saying he was investigating rumors that legislators in battleground states won by President Joe Biden may appoint electors for Trump.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sen. Mike Lee-branded treats at the Utah Republican Party election night party at the Hyatt Regency in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022.

Those texts came up in a testy exchange at the only debate between the two candidates in mid-October, where the majority of the crowd cheered on Lee and jeered McMullin. Public records obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune show that Lee’s campaign snapped up most of the tickets to the debate hours before McMullin’s campaign was notified that a website to reserve them was live.

Many of the ads funded by outside spenders have centered around who the candidates backed in 2020 — McMullin tweeted that he was going to “put country over party” and vote for Biden.

The ads have been overwhelmingly combative. McMullin filed a lawsuit against one super PAC, Club for Growth Action, for a TV ad featuring a clip doctored to make it seem as if McMullin said “the Republican base is racist — these bigots” in an appearance on CNN. That case is ongoing.

Political figures and celebrities from outside of Utah also got involved in the race as polls fluctuated, at times placing McMullin ahead of Lee. Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger, one of two Republicans on the House Jan. 6 Committee, came to Utah to campaign for McMullin, and former Democratic presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard stumped for Lee.

Local high-profile political figures let Utahns know where they stood, too — former Republican Gov. Jon Huntsman endorsed Lee in a Club for Growth Action ad, and former Democratic Congressman Ben McAdams supported McMullin throughout his campaign. Some prominent Utahns, notably, did not make any endorsements in the race. Among them was Lee’s colleague, Sen. Mitt Romney.

“You might not always agree with Mike — I don’t — but we can all agree that principled leadership and fidelity to the Constitution are paramount in difficult times,” Huntsman said in his endorsement. “Let’s send Mike Lee back to the Senate.”

The Salt Lake Tribune reporter Tony Semerad contributed to this article.