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Here come the ‘Never Trumpers’

Prominent Trump critic Evan McMullin is joining the 2022 U.S. Senate race. He says he’s not the only one

SHARE Here come the ‘Never Trumpers’
Evan McMullin talks about his campaign to challenge GOP Sen. Mike Lee as an independent for the Senate.

Evan McMullin talks about his campaign to challenge Mike Lee as an independent candidate for U.S. Senate in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Nine months after leaving the White House, former president Donald Trump is fundraising and campaigning like a candidate in the 2024 presidential election — without having formally announced his candidacy. All signs point to a ’24 run, though, and Trump reportedly plans to launch his campaign in August.

Death, taxes and Donald Trump running for office, it seems — and for as long as the former commander in chief has a platform, his opponents have juice.

Welcome back, “Never Trumpers.”

The Trump-opposed conservatives never really went away, but they are now running on a new strategy. 2016 independent presidential candidate Evan McMullin announced a campaign to challenge Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, in the 2022 Senate race this week, and he says other like-minded conservatives around the country may soon follow. McMullin’s been politically active since winning 20% of Utah’s presidential vote in 2016 — he founded a pro-democracy nonprofit, spearheaded a group of 150 disgruntled Republicans who threatened to leave the party and now he’s vying for a seat in the U.S. Senate.

But skeptics were quick to point out that McMullin’s good-faith efforts seemingly had no real weight in Washington, D.C. When McMullin and his hundred-plus co-authors released a letter calling for “American renewal,” largely pointed toward reform within the GOP, critics noted that no current national officeholders were included among the signatories. That was political scientist Cas Mudde’s biggest critique; Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin, despite expressing general support of McMullin’s efforts, offered a list of questions, the first being, “Will any current elected leaders, besides state leaders, sign on to these principles?”

Officeholders seemed largely disinterested in uniting themselves with an outside group seeking internal party reform. Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah and one of Trump’s GOP critics, offered only a vague statement in response to McMullin’s recent activities.

Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., a reported attendee at McMullin’s first brainstorming meeting in February, has been more or less silent ever since. And newer GOP members of Congress seem even more unwilling to step out of line with the party; first-term Rep. Blake Moore, R-Utah, who recently invited Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., to a fundraising event, wrote a Deseret News op-ed days after McMullin’s letter, doubling down on his allegiance to the Republican Party.

If they aren’t willing to stand up for a post-Trump GOP, McMullin implies, someone needs to — and who better than the man whose entire political career is built upon opposition to Trump?

Here, McMullin would undoubtedly correct me. Opposition to Trump isn’t the motivation for his Senate run; Trump’s name didn’t even come up once in our 45-minute conversation Wednesday. McMullin instead spoke more generally of the disfunction and polarization that plagued American politics for five years, and he thinks his campaign is the answer.

“It’s become clear that our politics are completely broken,” McMullin said. “I firmly believe the country needs Utah’s leadership now. Our republic is at risk.”

U.S. Senate candidate Evan McMullin walking outside wearing a black suit.

Evan McMullin walk back to his car after an interview in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021. McMullin is running for Sen. Mike Lee’s seat as an independent..

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

The “Utah way,” by McMullin’s measure, is a brand of principle-driven leadership that is still open to compromise — a profuse bipartisanship that McMullin says is central to his campaign. The three most senior members of his campaign leadership are a Republican, a Democrat and an independent, modeling the cross-aisle unity he wants to be emblematic of his run.

There’s a reason McMullin isn’t running as a Republican, though his conservative platform appears to fit the party’s traditional values. McMullin wants to move beyond the labels and run a campaign accessible to all Utahns. “Both parties will see, this is a better way of leadership,” he said, though he still wishes luck to both of Lee’s primary opponents, Becky Edwards and Ally Isom. “I think (Lee) has very impressive challengers, and I hope they succeed.”

Lee, who a National Review writer dubbed “one of the most traditionally conservative, non-Trumpy senators” earlier this week, has a complicated relationship with the former president. In 2016, Lee called for Trump to drop out of the race after the “Access Hollywood” tapes were released; ironically, Lee cast his vote for McMullin in that year’s presidential election. By the 2020 election, however, Lee was one of Trump’s staunchest supporters in the Senate, even comparing him to Book of Mormon figure Captain Moroni. After the Jan. 6 insurrection, Lee and Trump went about a month without speaking to one another, before Lee held a fundraising event at Trump’s Mar-A-Lago Resort in Florida in mid-February.

McMullin’s opposition, as a staunch opponent to the MAGA wing of the GOP, is natural. But McMullin’s friend Miles Taylor, a former official in the Trump White House, views McMullin’s method as “groundbreaking”: Though Taylor and McMullin dabbled with the idea of launching a third party earlier this year, they soon found that doing so wouldn’t be effective in stemming the tide of political extremism, and reforming the GOP would not be possible in the short term, either. “Our last hope is folks like Evan running (as independents) to try to stable our political system,” Taylor told me on a call Wednesday.

With the announcement of his campaign, McMullin stepped down as executive director of Stand Up Republic, the nonprofit he founded with Mindy Finn in the wake of the 2016 election. Taylor will assume the role of acting executive director.

They are already winning over critics. Jennifer Rubin, the Post columnist who questioned their inability to access officeholders earlier this year, all but endorsed McMullin and said her readers should cheer his efforts.

McMullin and Taylor both sense a tide changing. McMullin said he’s had recent conversations with several members of Congress who were previously ambivalent to his efforts; now, they are more willing to admit the disastrous direction the GOP is heading. Taylor is in active conversations with a number of other people around the country to do something similar to McMullin, mostly in House races. “Trump-leaning incumbents should watch out,” he said.

McMullin was more reserved but admitted that more will follow. “There will be others,” he said.

If that’s the case, people on both sides of the aisle should take note. The “Never Trump” movement has been declared dead on multiple occasions by pundits, and the effect their advertisements and activism had on the 2020 election is debated. The ability to dismiss them as barking-but-biteless largely stems from their absence in public office; the “Never Trump” movement’s chief leaders — Bill Kristol, Steve Schmidt, Joe Walsh — have no legislating authority.

That could change if other Trump-opposing conservatives join McMullin in launching campaigns in 2022. If any win — a long shot, but still possible — it would complicate the strict loyalty Trump has thus far commanded within the GOP.

If an independent winning in a conservative stronghold like Utah seems unlikely, that’s not deterring McMullin. “I would not be doing this if I didn’t think we could win,” he said.