Russell Arben Fox: Evan McMullin’s not so independent senate campaign

Utah case is different from a similar attempt at an independent candidacy in Kansas.

(John Hanna | AP photo) In this Jan. 25, 2018, photo, Kansas City-area businessman Greg Orman discusses his run for Kansas governor as an independent candidate during an interview in Topeka, Kansas.

When the Utah Democratic party decided to not nominate Kael Weston, their own presumptive candidate for the upcoming U.S. Senate race against Mike Lee, and instead to throw their support behind independent senatorial candidate and famed Never-Trumper Republican Evan McMullin, at least a couple of political observers may have heard a distant echo.

Eight years ago, the Kansas Democratic party withdrew their own nominated candidate for the 2014 Senate race against Republican incumbent Pat Roberts, even fighting a legal battle to keep the party’s slot on the ballot blank, to clear the way for independent senatorial candidate Greg Orman.

Why? Because they judged that Orman would have a better chance than their candidate, given that Kansas hadn’t elected a Democrat to a Senate seat in 82 years (and to this date, still hasn’t), and they didn’t want to play spoiler. In both cases, you have an established statewide party — though clearly a minority one — choosing to support someone who wasn’t a member of their party, in the hopes to taking out the member of the opposition party currently in office.

Party voting patterns are hard to break, though. In 2014, Orman lost to Roberts 53% to 42%, which is about the same loss as experienced by other Democratic candidates for Senate in Kansas over the decades. So maybe this kind of outrageous move, for all the elite praise it may receive has little chance of success?

The polls will give us a clearer view eventually — but for now, here are three reasons why McMullin may have more going for him than Orman did.

1) Mike Lee isn’t Pat Roberts

Pat Roberts was a conservative Republican, but a perfectly dutiful and boring one, whereas Lee’s transformation from Trump critic to willing supporter of his efforts to stay in office beyond his loss in the 2020 election has painted a target on his chest unlike anything Roberts ever carried.

2) Evan McMullin isn’t Greg Orman

Orman was, essentially, a business-friendly, socially moderate Democrat trying to avoid being tagged as a Democrat in a state where Democrats are in a perpetual minority. That wasn’t an implausible strategy; Kansas has historically elected Democrats to statewide offices (such as our current governor, Laura Kelly), when the Republicans can be painted as too extreme, too culturally obsessed and not fiscally responsible enough. But when it comes to campaigns for federal office, that locally effective strategy ran straight into national polarization.

McMullin won’t have that problem. He already is a fiscal and cultural conservative and, until 2016, had the party label to prove it. That’s not to say Lee won’t try to turn our ideological divides against him; he will. Still, the tightrope which McMullin must walk traverses Utah’s existing Republican landscape, unlike Orman’s tightrope, which assumed the existence in Kansas of large numbers of independents which, when it comes to national elections, weren’t there.

3) Greg Orman didn’t have Ben McAdams

Orman was a genuine independent in matters of politics, seeing party labels themselves as something to avoid. McMullin is nothing like that; he has, instead, purposefully cultivated ties with Democrats like former Rep. Ben McAdams from the beginning. The Kansas Democratic party took the action it did in 2014 entirely without Orman’s involvement. McMullin, by contrast, was explicit about getting the formal support of Utah Democrats last week, solely because he believes that with Democratic votes, he — a moderately conservative one-time Republican — might get enough votes overall to take out the odious Lee, as a normal Democrat probably never could. So thanks to Democrats like McAdams and others, McMullin has a strategy unlike Orman’s: this isn’t an independent running against the party system, but an independent candidate twisting the existing party system, with help from people on the inside, to make it possible for Utah voters to have a choice regarding something — Lee’s commitment to Trump’s lies — which a large number of Utah Republicans and Democrats appear to think about the same way.

Ultimately, Utah’s 2022 Senate race will be quite different from Kansas’s 2014 race. In the latter case, the Kansas Democrats made way for a very Democratic-sounding independent, who wanted to be free of party labels, to run unimpeded against the Republican incumbent; in the former, the Utah Democrats made way for a Republican, who will accept whatever party support he can get, to run unimpeded against another Republican. An original move, that.

Russell Fox is a professor of political science and director of the Honors Program at Friends University, a small, Christian, liberal arts college in Wichita, Kansas. He received his BA and MA from Brigham Young University in 1993 and 1994, once got then-BYU student body president Mike Lee mad at him when he attacked Lee’s defense of a new BYU housing policy in the Student Review, and writes regular columns on Kansas politics for Insight Kansas.