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State of the race: Sen. Mike Lee, Evan McMullin butting heads in bid for U.S. Senate

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Sen. Mike Lee, left, and Senate candidate Evan McMullin, right, are pictured in this composite photo.

Sen. Mike Lee, left, and Senate candidate Evan McMullin, right, are pictured in this composite photo.

Stuart Johnson and Jeffrey D., Allred, Deseret News

Politico called it the strangest Senate race in America. A recent CNN story noted that it’s the only Senate race in the country where Democrats decided not to field a candidate.

And the contest between independent Evan McMullin and incumbent Republican Sen. Mike Lee has become one of the most competitive in the nation. It has also turned nasty, both between the candidates sniping at each other on social media and as super PACs spend like crazy on attack ads.

Fireworks are expected next Monday when Lee and McMullin square off in their only scheduled debate before the Nov. 8 election. The event sponsored by the Utah Debate Commission is Monday at 6 p.m. at Utah Valley University.

The debate is must-see TV, especially for voters who are still on the fence. County clerks will start mailing ballots the next day, Oct. 18.

The Lee-McMullin matchup is the closest statewide election Utah has seen in decades, said Jason Perry, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah.

A new Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll found Lee with a 41% to 37% lead over McMullin, but nearly one-fifth of voters either didn’t know or would choose a candidate other than the four on the ballot, including two third-party hopefuls. That leaves a lot of voters up for grabs in the next few weeks.

Lee’s internal polling shows him up 18 points, according to his campaign. McMullin’s internal poll shows him ahead by one.

Regardless of the numbers, Lee remains the favorite, though some political prognosticators have slightly shifted their ratings. The Cook Political Report moved the race from “solid Republican” to “likely Republican.” Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball last downgraded the race from “safe Republican” to “likely Republican.”

Lee has the ability to lean on partisan identity in a way that McMullin doesn’t as an independent.

“McMullin is walking this fine line where he needs to convince Utah voters that Lee is not serving their interests and that he will serve their interests even though he’s not running as a Republican,” said Chris Karpowitz, co-director of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University.

“He has to criticize Lee, keep Democrats in his camp and reach out to independents and some Republicans to support his campaign. That’s just a harder task to do than relying on your partisan label, which is what Lee is doing. That doesn’t mean McMullin doesn’t have a chance. He does.”

The fact that the race might “closetly” be close reflects some dissatisfaction with aspects of Lee’s work in Washington and his behavior on the Trump campaign trail, Karpowitz said, referring to Lee comparing Donald Trump to beloved Book of Mormon leader Captain Moroni during the 2020 election.

Karpowitz said Lee’s remark “deeply offended” and was a “step too far” for many members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“I do think he is vulnerable. But I think he also has some important advantages that you can’t forget. Just because he’s made some missteps and he is vulnerable doesn’t mean he isn’t more likely than not to win this race,” Karpowitz said.

Lee’s job approval rating among Utahns has languished below 50% for some time. The September Deseret News/Hinckley Institute poll found only 40% of voters approve of his performance, while 45% disapprove and 16% don’t know, a fairly high number for a two-term senator. But his rating remains much higher among Republicans and conservatives.

Karpowitz said that gives Lee an advantage in Utah’s GOP environment. Also, the party of the president usually does poorly in midterm elections.

Even though McMullin portrays himself as an independent, he has become the Democratic candidate in the race, Lee told Breitbart last weekend.

“He’s endorsed by the Utah Democratic Party. So even though he calls himself an independent, calling yourself that doesn’t make you that if, in fact, you’re the Democrats’ guy,” Lee said, adding that McMullin is being “coy” with voters.

While McMullin is not a Democrat, he has the backing of the Utah Democratic Party, which he convinced to drop its own candidate in favor of him running as an independent. He said he would caucus with neither Democrats nor Republicans if elected, contending that would make him a valuable vote in the Senate.

A former Republican, McMullin painted himself as the true conservative in the race in a speech last month. Conservatism, he said, is about protecting the country’s founding ideals and its institutions, especially the Constitution and free and fair elections.

Perry agrees Lee continues to be in the driver’s seat, but noted the polls show that many of the uncommitted voters are moderates who are trying to decide if they want to keep a well-known but not uniformly popular conservative, or cast a vote for an unaffiliated candidate who is still establishing his policy positions.

“The Utah Senate race will be won on the front lines by the candidate who can capture the ever-important base of moderate voters,” he said. “Conservatives and liberals have largely made up their minds, now we’re going to see how the silent, moderate majority exerts their power. That is the ground both candidates want.”

As the candidates compete for voters, super PACs are pumping millions of dollars into the race in the form of attack ads on television and social media and mailers. The candidates themselves have also hit the airwaves hard with a month to go to Election Day.

Club for Growth Action, the most well-funded of the outside groups involved in the Lee-McMullin race, has been very active, including an ad McMullin called false. He sued Club for Growth and the local TV stations airing the 30-second spot. The lawsuit argues the “doctored” video makes it sound like he called all Republicans racists and bigots.

The Washington-based super PAC called the lawsuit a “stunt” and says McMullin is trying to “censor” it and Utah media.

In a response filed in court, Club for Growth says McMullin’s lawsuit is largely a political statement seeking to mislead voters in Utah that he did not make statements that he actually did make. It says that his campaign “apparently has an ongoing struggle with the truth.”

McMullin says the same thing about the Lee campaign.

Voters will decide who to believe and who they want to represent them in Washington at the end of one of the strangest, most unique Senate races in the country.