Utah Senate Odds: Can Independent Evan McMullin Beat Mike Lee?

Written By Evan Scrimshaw on April 26, 2022
Evan McMullin

One of the more odd races of 2022 is one which, in a sense, won’t change much in Washington. Incumbent Republican Senator Mike Lee is officially not facing a Democratic challenger, which should mean that he is guaranteed re-election, except, the lack of a Democrat is bad news. Instead, independent Evan McMullin will challenge him after a down-ballot presidential run in 2016.

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Utah US Senate Race: Evan McMullin Vs. Mike Lee Odds

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An Independent Steps In

In 2010, Mike Lee ran as a firebrand conservative and managed to win that primary in the midst of the Tea Party wave, before winning the general election that year easily.

In 2016, Lee handily won re-election on the same night as Donald Trump’s (relatively) close result in Utah, in part because of a Mormon independent named Evan McMullin, who got 21.5% of the vote in the state based mostly on Mormon disaffection over Trump’s immoral behavior and lewd personalities.

McMullin, a generic anti-Trump Republican, once worked for the CIA. He rallied against Trump on the dual basis of his personal qualities (or more precisely, the perceived lack of qualities), and because as a former intelligence officer, McMullin believed Trump was unfit to serve as president.

After getting 21.5% in Utah in that 2016 presidential bid, McMullin faded from the national media, writing the occasional op-ed but mostly staying quiet, until he announced he would be running against Lee as Lee tries to win his third term this year.

For McMullin to have a chance as an independent, the first step was Utah Democrats not running a candidate. That would ensure that the anti-Lee vote wasn’t split between a Democrat and McMullin’s candidacy. This past weekend, Utah Democrats did leave the door open for McMullin.

Is There Precedent For Evan McMullin To Win?

This isn’t the first time in recent memory Democrats have gotten out of a race to try and beat a Republican in a red state with an imperfect (to mainstream Democratic values) independent.

In 2014, both the Kansas Senate race and the Alaska governor’s race featured no Democrats on the ballot. Many believed that Greg Orman and Bill Walker, respectively, had viable chances to win as independents if a Democratic nominee wasn’t on the ballot taking away anti-Republican votes.

The theory — which worked in Alaska, and saw Orman get closer in 2014’s red wave than Democrats would get in 2020 — is that an independent can win some number of Republican voters that Democrats can’t. If Democrats aren’t on the ballot, those undecideds flow overwhelmingly to the independent.

Utah fits the general pattern of a place where this could be interesting. It’s a “safe” red state with an idiosyncratic base of voters and a state with more volatile outcomes than average. Now that McMullin has gotten through the first step of getting Democrats to not nominate a candidate, he has a chance in theory.

Evan McMullin’s Prospects

Mike Lee and Evan McMullin don’t actually disagree on much. They’re both clear conservatives with pro-life views who want to appoint right-wing Supreme Court justices, cut taxes and cut spending.

They do disagree on Donald Trump.

Mike Lee has fervently supported the former president, including acting as a private proponent of the election truthering and inquiring into whether any path existed to overturning the 2020 election. Unsurprisingly, McMullin has described Lee’s acts as a “betrayal of his oath.” He is trying to use it as a springboard to office.

Can it work? Sure.

Will it work? Probably not.

This is the right tactical move for Democrats, but McMullin is hardly an improvement on Lee in terms of economic policy or social views. Unlike most of the NeverTrump Republicans, McMullin is pro-life and anti-gay marriage. That makes him a harder sell to a Democratic electorate than other Romney 2012/Biden 2020 voters.

Getting Democrats to bother voting for another clone of Mitt Romney will prove a challenge. Getting them to do so without giving them enough influence on McMullin to ruin his conservative credentials is going to be nearly impossible. Every time McMullin has to tack left (or even left-ish), he risks losing another vote on his right flank to Lee. The needle does exist, but it’s a really hard one to thread.

Expect A Lee Victory

The case for him pulling it off centers around only 45.5% of Utah voters backing Trump in 2016. Hillary Clinton and McMullin combined for 49%. That shows that the math does exist for a McMullin win, but the problem is that represents the absolute best case. It likely won’t come.

Donald Trump spent $0 and zero time in Utah in 2016. He rightly understood that if he lost there, he was already so dead that it didn’t matter. Had the GOP cared, they would have gone in and shored up that 45.5% and gotten him above 50%.

The two 2014 examples above prove that it’s possible, but the differences between those two races and this one show why McMullin won’t win.

In Kansas, the GOP still won comfortably in a much less Republican state than Utah, in a time when Senate races were less polarized on presidential partisanship. In Alaska, a governor’s race, Republicans lost to the independent, but that was a race for state office in a less red state.

McMullin isn’t a dead candidate. The idiosyncratic nature of the Utah electorate and the Mormon faith in general leave room to pull this off. The Walker and Orman maneuvers happened much later in the cycle, and McMullin will probably pull in a bunch of cash now that Democrats have given up. He certainly will lose by substantially less than any Democrat would have, but he’ll still lose.

If there’s honor in losing by 12% instead of 41%, as Democrats did against Lee in 2016, then great. McMullin’s race has merit. But he’s not going to win. To think he will is the same sort of fever dream that led Mike Lee to think Trump could keep office.

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