Why did Mike Lee defeat Evan McMullin? Robert Gehrke explains what happened in Utah’s U.S. Senate race.

Attack ads worked and Republicans came home, but the independent paved the way to future bids for moderates.

(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.

The aftermath of an Election Day is always a time for reflection, conducting the obligatory post-mortem and, sure, some armchair quarterbacking.

The fact that U.S. Sen. Mike Lee won didn’t surprise me. Evan McMullin’s independent bid was clearly a long shot from Day One. The margin, which currently stands at 13 points, was wider than I expected.

But the race itself was so unique — from Democrats choosing not to nominate a candidate, to the tens of millions of dollars poured in, to the closest outcome (as it now stands) since 1976 — that it warrants some additional analysis.

So here are a few initial takeaways and some interesting new polling insights from the folks at Y2 Analytics:

McMullin missed his opportunity for broad appeal

Entering the race there was a group willing to vote against Mike Lee — including more than a third of Republicans who voted against him in the GOP primary. Part of that, certainly, stemmed from his actions leading up to the Jan. 6 riot and his conversion from being anti-Trump to calling him Captain Moroni.

But it wasn’t enough, and we saw it throughout the polling where the percentage of undecideds remained notably high. Voting against Lee would get McMullin partway there, but he needed to give them something to vote for.

And there are some low-hanging, nonpartisan issues to pluck. The disappearance of The Great Salt Lake is threatening lives and livelihoods, and what has Lee done? Our kids can’t afford to live here and we need to work together to solve the problem. The cost of healthcare squeezes families. College is unaffordable. And on and on.

All are issues that impact Republicans and Democrats, and where Lee has either done nothing or obstructed the search for solutions.

Instead, McMullin was squishy, remaining vague on his positions in an effort to avoid alienating potential voters. It didn’t work.

Trying to be everything to everyone meant nobody knew who he was

Once ballots went out, the polling firm Y2 Analytics went into the field to do sort of the modern equivalent of the old-time exit polls.

One of the most fascinating findings is that 57% of Republicans viewed McMullin as politically liberal, while 38% of Democrats saw him as conservative. Among independents, 29% thought he was conservative and 28% thought he was liberal.

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

Maybe this is a function of voters seeing McMullin’s politics from the vantage point of their own. But it also shows the conundrum he was facing throughout the race, having to try to convince conservatives he was conservative enough without alienating liberals, and vice versa.

What it seems to show is that McMullin was an ill-defined enigma, which left him susceptible to being defined by his opponent. And Lee’s campaign capitalized.

Lee & Cos.’ messaging was devastating

We’re probably all relieved that the ads are over, but academics could use this race as a study on how surgically effective the attacks really are.

From labeling him as a “deadbeat” and an opportunist to painting McMullin as a pro-Biden Trojan horse, Lee and his allies thoroughly redefined McMullin. Their task may have been made easier because McMullin leaned heavily into his years in the CIA, which lends itself to the narrative that maybe he’s not what he claims to be.

The impact of the ads was crushing. In polls in early October, a lot of voters were still undecided about McMullin, but most who had an opinion viewed him favorably — by a fairly comfortable margin. After a few weeks of carpet-bombing attack ads, the numbers flipped.

Y2 Analytics’ poll released on Wednesday drives home the point, finding that 47% had an unfavorable impression of McMullin, compared to 42% who viewed him favorably — less popular than Lee and on par with Trump.

Lee didn’t need to convince voters to support him; he just needed to make his opponent seem completely unpalatable to a majority of voters. And he did.

Republicans came home

To get a sense of how effective Lee was in discrediting McMullin, consider the Republican primary this summer where Lee received 62% of the vote. Put another way, 38% voted against him and for one of his two opponents.

That meant there was a fairly broad group of GOP voters discontented with Lee who could potentially be swayed by the right argument.

But the Y2 Analytics poll found that McMullin ended up getting just 17% of the Republican vote, meaning he lost well over half of those potential GOP supporters.

Democrats got on board, with 92% voting for McMullin — about the same percentage who supported Lee’s last challenger, Misty Snow, in 2016. In fact, even though nearly one in four said it was more important to have a Democrat on the ballot than to beat Lee, 78% of them still voted for McMullin. The poll found 64% of independents sided with McMullin. But losing those Republicans left his coalition well short of where it needed to be.

Was ‘The Evan Experiment’ worth it?

The answer to that question is bound to be subjective.

James Curry, a University of Utah associate professor of political science, noted at an event Wednesday that Lee’s opponents threw everything at him they could muster and McMullin still only did a few points better than Biden (right now it’s four points).

And I’ve heard plenty from Democrats out there who would rather see the party fight and lose than capitulate.

I’m inclined to side with former Utah Rep. Ben McAdams — who facilitated the plot and I could see running a similar bid sometime in the future.

“We had the most competitive senate race we’ve had in 50 years, volunteers were energized, small donations came in and people were excited and it lifted moderate candidates down the ballot,” he told me. “Of course, I would have preferred to see Evan win. But for the first time in 50 years, moderate voters felt like their voices mattered in this election, and that counts for something.”

Indeed, McMullin’s showing was the closest since Frank Moss lost to a young lad named Orrin Hatch in 1976 — meaning Lee also got a lower percentage than any senator since then. More noteworthy, I think, is that by the time the dust settles, McMullin will have received more votes than any senate challenger in Utah history.

McMullin has shown that, at least in theory, there is a viable path for a moderate candidate in Utah, not just for Senate, but potentially for governor, attorney general or Congress.

His candidacy shook voters out of their rigid, red-or-blue partisan construct that doesn’t reflect the mainstream or serve the state well, and united them to try to provide at least some meaningful counterbalance to the far-right Republicans.

And even though the odds were always against him pulling off the upset, The Evan Experiment made Mike Lee work in a general election. For the first time in his career, he had to acknowledge and court voters outside his narrow Republican base, and maybe he even had to sweat a little.

So in my mind, yes, it was worth it — especially if we see others follow the model in the future.

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