The last time Utah saw a truly competitive U.S. Senate race was back when upstart Democratic Utah Rep. Wayne Owens managed to finish about five points behind Republican nominee Jake Garn.
It was 1974. Richard Nixon had resigned a few months earlier, Burt Reynolds hit theaters with The Longest Yard and Stevie Wonder topped the music charts. I was still in diapers at the time, and over the years came to accept that I might be again before there was another race as competitive — if I lived that long.
Yet with just over a month to the 2022 midterm elections, Evan McMullin’s unprecedented independent challenge to Sen. Mike Lee has drawn national attention and made for the most fascinating statewide race in decades — not to mention potentially the closest in 48 years.
The political prognosticators at The Cook Report, FiveThirtyEight.com, Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball and others rightly still favor Lee to win, but confidence has softened somewhat, moving Utah from a slam-dunk for Lee to a likely victory, and the latest polls all over the map.
McMullin’s coalition of independents, Democrats and ticked-off Republicans has come together about as well as he could have hoped, leaving him in potential striking distance.
Lee’s team has run a smart race, solidifying the base and — with the exception of the text messages where Lee tells the White House he was “working 14 hours a day” to help Donald Trump after his election loss — largely avoiding the former president.
Now the outside spending is pouring in by the millions, most notably from the pro-Lee Club For Growth, whose latest ad is an egregious lie, deceptively edited to make it appear McMullin is calling all Republicans racist. It’s false, and one of the most dishonest ads I’ve ever seen in the state. But these attacks will escalate and we’ll see if they work in a state where character assassination has backfired.
Whether or not the hit pieces damage McMullin, the spending barrage clearly tells us one thing: Don’t believe the polls showing Lee running away with this race.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee released a poll recently showing Lee up by 17. If that were true, Club For Growth would have that information and would be sending all of its money to states that are slipping away from Republicans, like Pennsylvania and Georgia. Instead, Club has upped its ad buys in recent weeks.
If other GOP groups jump in, you know the race is too close for comfort.
On the flip side, polls this month from the Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics and from Center Street PAC, a group working to elect moderate candidates — probably overstate McMullin’s strength.
The Deseret News/Hinckley poll has McMullin down 3 among likely voters and just 2 among registered voters, while Center Street has the margin at 4 and 3 points among the respective groups. All of those numbers are basically within the margin of error.
McMullin is in pretty good shape among Republicans in the Deseret News survey but hasn’t solidified Democrats the way he needs to. Lee, meantime, is stronger among older voters, who tend to vote more reliably in midterm elections, but still is not in a dominant position for an incumbent.
The wild card in both polls, though, is the unusually large number of undecided voters — Center Street at 18% and the other poll with 24% who answered undecided or “other”.
Kurt Jetta, Center Street’s chief analytics officer, told me that of the six states the group is tracking, “this one is significantly above any of the others as far as people still on the sidelines.”
Where those voters end up will likely determine the outcome.
There is a line of reasoning that the incumbent Lee is a known commodity and voters who aren’t sold on him by now could end up backing McMullin. Jetta sees it differently.
“Although our polling showed it was fairly close, we would expect a vast majority of those [undecideds] to break for Lee,” he said.
One reason for that is that Republicans will “go home” to the incumbent. The second, Jetta said, is that the undecided voters, while not sold on Lee, don’t intensely dislike the senator.
Indeed, it appears that when undecideds are pushed to commit, Lee gains. The recent poll for the Utah Debate Commission showed just 5% undecided, much lower than the other two, and an 11-point advantage for Lee.
That gap feels a little wide to me, but not wildly so. It is also worth noting that, taking the polls as a whole, the gap has been narrowing and it would seem the lesser-known McMullin might have more room to sway voters.
So where does all that leave us?
If the election were held today, Lee would almost surely win, but McMullin has kept himself in the fight. He needs a big October with a flawless debate performance, a robust voter identification and turnout effort and maybe a lucky break — like perhaps more revelations from the House Jan. 6 Commission — to close the gap.
FiveThirtyEight gives McMullin just a 7% chance to pull off the upset. I think his odds are better than that, maybe one-in-four.
No question, the race remains Lee’s to lose. But in what has been a wild race thus far, maybe we shouldn’t be surprised if we have the closest Senate race finish in decades.