Evan McMullin is running for U.S. Senate on a bet he can assemble a broad coalition of Democrats, independents and persuadable Republicans to unseat incumbent Republican Sen. Mike Lee in a deep red state.
In Arizona, congressional candidate Clint Smith is trying a similar strategy.
Smith, an attorney and former Republican who changed his party registration in 2021 after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, is running as an independent against fellow Latter-day Saint Rep. Andy Biggs to represent Arizona’s 5th District.
In a typical year, Biggs wouldn’t have to worry about losing his seat. There’s little room to run to his right in a primary, and the district isn’t competitive for Democrats. Post-Jan. 6, though, Smith sees an opening to beat Biggs by running to the middle.
The conservative district includes LDS-heavy communities like Gilbert, Queen Creek and east Mesa, and Smith said he thinks members of his church and others will support a candidate who’s “not in the extreme range, the MAGA range.”
“We’re doing kind of the same thing that Evan’s doing,” he said.
McMullin visited Arizona in August for a fundraiser, and he “gave me some encouragement and hope for the fact that there are people out there who are willing to contribute to an independent campaign,” Smith said. Smith has had conversations with others in the independent-third party space, including former presidential candidate Andrew Yang’s Forward Party.
Smith was endorsed by Country First, a political action committee started by Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., that’s backed Democrats, independents and Republicans nationwide running against pro-Trump candidates and candidates who question the 2020 election results.
Biggs, a three-term congressman, ran unopposed in this summer’s primary, but Smith said internal campaign polling found that Biggs is vulnerable.
Biggs voted to object to certifying Electoral College votes and against creating a commission to investigate the Capitol attack. He was also allegedly one of six Republicans who asked former President Donald Trump for a pardon following Jan. 6, 2021, according to findings by the House committee investigating the attack. Biggs denied requesting a pardon.
Smith has made Biggs’ relationship with Trump a central plank of his candidacy. Smith’s campaign signs read “Country Over Party, Vote Independent,” and his campaign ad includes footage of the Jan. 6 attack and former Trump administration aide Cassidy Hutchinson saying during a taped sworn testimony that Biggs asked for a pardon. Smith ends the ad asking voters to “Vote Independent. Not Insurrectionist.” On his campaign website issues page under “support for law enforcement,” Smith criticizes Republicans who didn’t support U.S. Capitol Police during and after the attack.
“We find a lot of independents and a fair number of Republicans are ready to say, ‘You know, I’m not into that stolen election stuff and I want to have a rational person represent our district,’” Smith said. “So that’s the path, getting those people informed and together.”
Bigg’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
During Utah’s Senate debate last week, Lee distanced himself from Trump and emphasized his opposition to his party overspending. “To suggest that I’m beholden to either party, that I’ve been a bootlicker for either party is folly,” Lee said.
While Trump remains the undisputed Republican leader, Lee’s comments show tying yourself closely to Trump could be a liability in Utah. It may well prove to be a liability, too, in Arizona’s East Valley.
Arizona’s political culture rewards independent streaks. Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly, up for reelection this year, is campaigning as someone who stood up to President Joe Biden on border security, while Sen. Kyrsten Sinema is known for angering fellow Democrats and negotiating bipartisan compromises.
Polling from OH Predictive Insights, a market research firm, suggests some Arizona voters are already prepared to split their ticket this year for Senate and governor. Kelly leads Republican Blake Masters 46% to 33% for Senate, while gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake — a Republican and well-known former TV news host — leads secretary of state and Democrat Katie Hobbs 47% to 44%. In the 5th District, some voters could turn in ballots with votes for Democrats, Republicans and an independent.
Unlike McMullin, Smith is disadvantaged with more competition on the ballot. While Utah’s Democratic Party declined to run a candidate and endorsed McMullin, Smith will face Democratic candidate Javier Garcia Ramos in addition to Biggs. Ramos doesn’t accept campaign donations, and Smith said he’s “clogging up the ballot” and “determined that he’s going to stay in no matter what.”
More Americans identify as independent (43%) than Republican (30%) or Democrat (24%), according to Gallup, but there are just two independent lawmakers in Congress, and both are in the Senate: Sens. Bernie Sanders, of Vermont, and Angus King of Maine. The prospect of two additional independents in Congress, though, could potentially open the door to more, particularly in the House.
Statewide Senate races offer a more broad electorate for independent candidates, but House districts can sometimes be gerrymandered to favor one party or another. Because primary voters tend to be more ideological, moderate general election voters often end up with more extreme candidates than they’d prefer.
Cross-party coalition building could be a workaround. Should Smith or McMullin win their races, it could provide a playbook for future independent candidates to challenge incumbents without worrying about winning a major-party primary.
“There’s a movement afoot nationwide, and this happens to be a district where good things can happen,” Smith said.