To defeat Mike Lee, Democrats need to support Evan McMullin for U.S. Senate, Robert Gehrke explains

Democrats need to change their strategy if they are actually trying to stop Sen. Mike Lee from having a third term in the Senate.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

Democrats, this message is specifically for you, particularly the delegates to Saturday’s state convention: If you want to beat Mike Lee in November, the only option is backing Evan McMullin.

That sentiment isn’t going to win me any friends in the party — particularly with Kael Weston, who is a very smart, hard-working, accomplished guy. He’s also a former college classmate.

Without question, if I got to pick Utah’s next senator from any of the declared candidates in the field, Weston would be my first choice. Unfortunately (for me and, I suppose, for Kael) that’s not how elections work.

Historically in this country, elections are won by the candidate who gets more votes (even when Lee works with the White House to usurp that American ideal). To have any chance of getting there, even against a senator with middling popularity like Lee, it will take a coalition of voters — from disillusioned Republicans to liberal Democrats.

Obviously having McMullin and Weston both competing for those voters makes it pretty much impossible to form that coalition. So maybe Weston is the guy and McMullin step aside?

The problem then becomes that you end up with the same Republican vs. Democrat model that has failed again and again in this state. No matter how hard you squint at the data, there isn’t a realistic path for Weston, or any other Democrat, to win a statewide race in Utah right now.

You know the track record. No Democrat has won statewide since Jan Graham was elected attorney general in 1996. No Democrat has won a Senate seat since Frank Moss in 1970.

But it’s actually worse than that. It has been 18 years since any Utah Democrat has received even a third of the vote in any statewide race and 40 years since it has happened in a U.S. Senate race.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kael Weston after the 2nd Congressional District debate in 2020.

Maybe Weston is different, but in his 2020 run against Rep. Chris Stewart in the 2nd District he ended up with 37% of the vote, three points worse than Joe Biden did in the district. That isn’t going to get the job done.

Then there’s Lee’s financial advantage. In the most recent campaign finance reports, Lee had $2.4 million in the bank, compared to $44,000 for Weston. National Democrats are desperately trying to defend seats in swing states to maybe hold on to a Senate majority, so help from the party won’t be forthcoming.

McMullin, by contrast, outraised Lee in his first quarter in the race, bringing in more than $1 million. Going forward, with a larger national profile — not to mention the curiosity factor of an unprecedented independent challenge to one of Trump’s most unabashed supporters — McMullin has the ability to appeal to donors nationwide and have a fighting chance of competing on the airwaves.

Now I readily admit that McMullin did not prove in his presidential run that he can win statewide. But he is at least polling somewhat close to Lee.

An OH Predictive Insights poll in February showed Lee at 34%, McMullin at 24% and Weston at 12%. It stands to reason that if Weston wasn’t in the race, that margin between Lee and McMullin would get a lot closer.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Evan McMullin in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021.

There are obvious reasons for Utahns of all political affiliations to want Lee gone, from his vote to block health benefits for 9/11 first responders to his Mar-a-Lago fundraising event alongside Reps. Lauren Boebert of Colorado and Matt Gaetz of Florida (who remains under investigation for child sex trafficking).

Now we’ve seen information emerging about Lee’s role in coordinating with the White House to keep Trump in office — with more information likely to come. His conversion from disdain for Trump to being one of his most die-hard loyalists shows there is no principle he won’t compromise for political power.

And Lee’s defeat could potentially determine control of the U.S. Senate.

But the choice Democrats make at the state convention Saturday will have a big impact on the chances for ousting Lee. They can hope that this time will be different, and Weston can overcome those obstacles, but will likely get the same results — and no representation or consideration from Senator Lee.

Or they can do something wildly different and support an independent candidate. A candidate who has a unique opportunity to unify Utah’s mainstream voters, reject the corrosive brand of Trumpism that Lee now wholeheartedly embraces and restore some reason and representation to politics in our state.