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Utah voters side with Trump

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SALT LAKE CITY — Republican Donald Trump is the winner in Utah, The Associated Press projected, as state election results showed him leading with 45 percent of the vote shortly before midnight Tuesday.

Democrat Hillary Clinton had 29 percent of the vote, with independent candidate Evan McMullin at 21 percent.

Utah GOP Chairman James Evans said Utahns are "trying to get back to the basics of government actually being there on behalf of the American people instead of being in the way of the American people."

The Utah party leader, who has pushed hard for a Trump victory in the state, said the billionaire businessman "speaks his mind. A lot of people don't like that, but I think that's what we need at this time."

Utah Democratic Party Chairman Peter Corroon wasn't ready Tuesday night to react to a Trump victory in the state.

"We still have Utahns waiting in lines at the polls," he said.

A longtime Clinton supporter, Salt Lake County Councilwoman Jenny Wilson, said the former secretary of state's team "worked hard in a very fluid and interesting election year and are disappointed we fell short."

In his concession speech, McMullin told a crowd of supporters gathered at The Depot that "the fight does not end tonight" and asked them to be part of "a new conservative movement that will stand for the rights and liberties" of Americans.

"We are not going away," he said, repeating "2020" after someone in the audience shouted the date of the next presidential election, saying he doesn't know what will happen then.

He warned that under a President Trump, "the Republican Party can no longer be considered the home of conservatives" and said millions of Americans are "in fear their liberties will be threatened."

More than two hours before voting ended in Utah, McMullin's national spokeswoman, Rina Shah, told reporters the election "is a beginning for us, not an end. Regardless of what happens, we'll be declaring a victory."

Shah said the campaign expected a tight race in Utah between McMullin and Trump, and while the state "in particular was perfect for our message," his conservative message had spread across the country.

Earlier Tuesday, a former GOP presidential candidate, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, tweeted that he voted "for McMullin for president. I appreciate his views on a strong America and the need to rebuild our military."

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, steadfastly refused to endorse Trump throughout the election but revealed Tuesday night that he cast a "protest" vote for independent candidate Evan McMullin.

"I've signaled in the past concerns I had with my party's nominee. I had an opportunity to register a protest vote. That's what this was," Lee said.

An early Trump supporter, Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, said it was a “difficult election” for many Utahns who felt they had more in common with McMullin, a Mormon born in Utah.

“There was a lot to connect with there,” Hughes said. Ultimately, however, Hughes said he believes Utahns “understood that candidate was never going to become the next president."

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, took the stage at the Utah GOP election night party at the University of Utah's Rice-Eccles Stadium to declare that it was time to “drain the swamp,” a phrase that Trump has often used.

“With Donald Trump as president, we can turn this stinkin’ mess around,” Hatch declared, to cheers.

He then called Trump the “best thing that’s happened to this country in years.”

Trump had talked on the campaign trail about his "tremendous problem" in Utah, a state that had not voted for a Democrat for president since President Lyndon Johnson ran against GOP Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater in 1964.

McMullin, a 40-year-old who served as a CIA officer and a policy aide to U.S. House Republicans, was vying to be the first third-party candidate to win a state since George Wallace in 1968.

Clinton had to contend with the legacy of her husband, former President Bill Clinton, in Utah, who was so disliked in the state that he finished third in 1992's presidential race behind a third-party candidate, Ross Perot.

Utahns made it clear early on they were not happy with the eventual nominees, giving both Trump and Clinton last-place finishes in their political party's March presidential preference caucus voting in the state.

Before McMullin entered the race in early August as a conservative alternative to Trump, Utahns who didn't like the major party picks showed interest in Libertarian Gary Johnson. Like McMullin, Johnson based his campaign in Salt Lake City.

The 2012 GOP presidential nominee, Utah favorite son Mitt Romney, may have given Johnson a boost by telling CNN during his annual Deer Valley donor retreat in June he was looking at the Libertarian ticket. Romney ended up not endorsing in the race.

But it was McMullin's candidacy that took off when he tied statistically with Trump and Clinton in a poll of Utah voters taken just after a 2005 video surfaced of Trump talking in graphic terms about making sexual advances on women.

The video launched what was described as a "full-scale revolt" among Utah Republicans already uncomfortable with Trump's bombastic style and stands that included a proposed ban on Muslims entering the country.

Trump's campaign worked hard to win back Utahns, sending his running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, to the state to deliver a revivalist speech urging Republicans to "come home" to their party's presidential pick.

That message was echoed last week by Utah GOP officials at a rally in the state Capitol rotunda. However, some key Republicans, including Gov. Gary Herbert, withdrew their support for Trump after the video.

Others, including Lee and Rep. Mia Love, R-Utah, never got behind Trump.

Clinton's campaign tried to take advantage of the fracture within the GOP in Utah, sending surrogates to the state and spending money on staffing, even sending out anti-Trump mailers to voters.

McMullin focused the most on Utah, spending the final days of the campaign here. His only way to the White House was winning Utah while keeping both Trump and Clinton from reaching 270 electoral votes, sending the election to the U.S. House.

It appears that the pull of party proved too much for his effort to convince Utahns, particularly his fellow Mormons, that it was more important to vote their conscience than stand by the GOP.

"They have been struggling with this decision," said Jason Perry, head of the U's Hinckley Institute of Politics, and may ultimately decide it is better to "go with what they know."

Perry said Trump's difficulties in Utah, however, send a message "to the rest of the country, to the Republican Party itself, that Utahns cannot be taken for granted" in presidential elections.

He said "the fact that Utahns kind of flirted with the idea of Evan McMullin for such a long time does give a message that they want to feel good about who they vote for" when they cast their ballots.

Chris Karpowitz, co-director of BYU's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, said Trump still "significantly underperformed previous Republican nominees" in Utah.

In 2012, Romney was a big winner in Utah with just under 73 percent of the vote, and in 2008, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., won the state with 62 percent of the vote. Both candidates lost to President Barack Obama.

Contributing: Daphne Chen, Dennis Romboy

Email: lisa@deseretnews.com

Twitter: DNewsPolitics