Instant family: How U.S. Senate candidate Evan McMullin became a husband and father overnight
The former presidential candidate married a woman with five children last summer
In 2016, a white nationalist supporter of Donald Trump launched a robocall smear campaign against independent presidential candidate Evan McMullin, attacking his status as an unmarried man.
“Evan is over 40 years old and is not married and doesn’t even have a girlfriend,” the ad targeting about 200,000 Utah residents said, among other things.
McMullin said then that he was aware that people in Utah wondered why he was not married given the importance his church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, places on marriage. He also said his greatest aspiration was to be a husband and father.
The 46-year-old former CIA operative became both last summer standing on a mountain at Sundance resort in Utah.
McMullin married Emily Norton, a mother of three boys and two girls — Logan, 15, Gavin, 12, Colin, 9, and 7-year-old twins Brynlee and Maylee — whose husband died of brain cancer in 2016. The transition from years of bachelorhood to instant family has, by all outward appearances, gone well.
“I think I’ve been ready for it for a long time. It was much harder to do that (be single) than it is this, frankly. That’s a long time to be alone,” he said.
While he settles into his new life, McMullin is taking on two-term Republican Sen. Mike Lee, a staunch conservative who has the backing of former President Donald Trump. Lee actually voted for McMullin during his late-hour, anti-Trump campaign for president six years ago before embracing Trump. Running again as an independent, McMullin is proving more competitive than Lee’s Democratic general election opponents in past elections.
Climb every mountain
McMullin met Emily Norton on a dating app for Latter-day Saints in the spring of 2020. The fact that he likes to hike caught her eye. Their first date came on the trail to Horseshoe Falls in the hills above Alpine. At least 20 more hikes ensued over the next year, including climbs to Box Elder Peak, Lone Peak, Mount Peale and Mount Tukuhnikivatz.
Their biggest hike came in Titcomb Basin in Wyoming’s Wind River Range, a 35-mile trek that had the couple pulling each other along while watching out for bears. McMullin concluded that if they could do that, they could do anything.
McMullin proposed on one knee on Grandeur Peak, east of Salt Lake City.
On a recent afternoon at the McMullin home in Highland, the kids showed off their piano skills, from Maylee delicately playing “Dance Theme and Variation” to Gavin’s mood-setting “Jazz Reflections” to Logan pounding Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C-sharp minor without sheet music. (All five play the piano.)
Apparently, music isn’t the only thing at which they excel.
“They’re all pretty shrewd Monopoly players,” McMullin said.
McMullin said the family, which includes an Aussiedoodle named Ruby and a Rhodesian ridgeback named Moose, has undergone what he called the normal adjustments and challenges to their new life together, but it hasn’t been as difficult as it could have been.
“I feel like this is where I’m supposed to be,” he said.
‘Very, very alone’
McMullin, a BYU graduate who grew up in Washington state, spent much of his 20s and 30s working in a way that made it difficult for him to date, let alone get married. He spent 11 years in the CIA, often going undercover to hunt down terrorists in hostile foreign locations, including South Asia and the Middle East. He said he was “very, very alone” and went long periods of time when not even his parents knew where or who he was.
“He wakes up and he’s in harm’s way. The type of people he was going after hate Americans,” said Michael Taylor, a former CIA operations targeting officer who identified and located terrorist cells and networks and relayed that information to clandestine operatives overseas like McMullin.
“Evan was a fighter. There’s no doubt that he was forward in the foxhole, finger on the trigger, as we say,” Taylor said.
As McMullin worked to meet assets and gather intelligence, often putting him in dicey, life-threatening situations, he never became flustered or worn out from the constant stress, Taylor said, adding he had an uncanny ability to stay calm.
“I’ll say this, it’s something that they’ve noticed in elite athletes. Under the pressure they become sharper and that’s true for the Tom Bradys of the world, but they don’t all play sports. I think Evan’s got whatever that is,” Taylor said.
McMullin said he ultimately finished his CIA service in 2010 because he realized he would never have the chance to become a husband and father if he stayed in.
It would take another decade, during which he earned an MBA, advised Republicans and Democrats on national security issues, and co-founded a nonprofit called Stand Up Republic before he would meet his future wife. Apparently, unbeknownst to each other at the time, they attended the same Latter-day Saint congregation in Jerusalem 20 years ago while she was a BYU student and he was with the Defense Department.
“It took longer than I would have liked for me to meet Emily, but she’s what I held out for,” he said.
A new campaign
Logan, a high school sophomore who’s into wrestling and has “maybe a little” interest in politics, says it would be “pretty cool” to have a senator for a dad.
Emily McMullin said she was vaguely aware of McMullin running for president in 2016, but as a newly widowed mother of five children age 8 and under she was in survival mode. Shortly after the funeral, she moved from Arizona to Utah to be near a brother-in-law.
The couple had some discussions about McMullin running for office again as their relationship developed. “But it was more of a theoretical conversation,” he said.
It’s real now, and what Politico described as the “strangest Senate race in America.”
And it also can be scary.
Just last month it came to light that a man driving a truck faces charges for allegedly threatening McMullin and his wife with a gun as they drove home from a campaign event in April. The man’s Facebook page contains far-right memes, some promoting political violence.
McMullin said in court documents that his family has had to take increased security precautions since the incident.
McMullin and some of Utah’s top Democrats convinced the Utah Democratic Party to drop its own candidate to back his independent run at Lee — an unprecedented move in Utah politics, perhaps anywhere. McMullin has gone hard after Lee, especially on his role in former President Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election results.
McMullin said he started to evaluate running against Lee early in the summer of 2021 and made the final decision about a month before launching his campaign in October of that year.
“In the fall, it became fairly clear that this was the thing to do,” he said.
Looking at where Republicans, independents and Democrats were in terms of voter registration and the dynamics of the two parties, McMullin said it was apparent that a “principled” conservative would not make it through the GOP primary, a Democrat would not be competitive in the general election, and an independent would have the opportunity to unite the two groups and independents into a majority coalition.
McMullin must thread a narrow needle from that position where heat over some of his positions comes from both sides. But, he says, that’s where the opportunity lies.
Declaration of independence
Emily McMullin said she and her husband are politically “aligned really closely” on a lot of things. “I’m excited to see some change,” she said.
McMullin, she said, would make a good senator because he’s the kind of person who does what’s right even when it’s not popular, pointing to his recent tweet calling out Democrats for meddling in a Republican primary in which a House candidate who voted to impeach Trump lost to a Trump-backed challenger, figuring a Democrat would have a better chance to win the seat in November.
“They’re playing with fire and threatening our democracy by supporting extremists,” McMullin said, while saying the “Democratic political machine” got what it wanted.
“Careful with the ‘Democratic machine’ talk, McMullin. Remember, the Utah party opted to support you,” read one tweet in response.
“I’ve noticed he’s had to call things out when it’s been hard to do so, when I think that sometimes other people wouldn’t do that because there’s maybe pressures to keep people happy,” Emily McMullin said.
“One of the great things about his being independent is he’s himself and he really just does what’s right.”
Former Democratic Congressman Ben McAdams, who helped get his party to support McMullin, echoes those sentiments.
McMullin, he said, is a “true independent” who puts his personal convictions and beliefs ahead of the party.
The two got to know each other when McAdams served as mayor of Salt Lake County and in Congress. McAdams said they talked about issues and protecting democracy, and that he doesn’t always agree with McMullin.
“He didn’t have an agenda. I just got to know him as somebody who was genuinely interested in the good of our country and what he could do to support the good of the country,” he said.
McMullin doesn’t intend to caucus with Democrats or Republicans if elected to the Senate, a decision that could either render him ineffective or give him powerful influence in a closely divided chamber. McAdams said not joining either caucus is “exactly the right move.”
“People are hungry for a public servant who’s going to work for the people, not for a party,” he said.
McMullin, he said, has spent his life serving the nation, and making incredible personal sacrifices and putting himself at risk to do it.
“Evan is an impressive person in his own right. And in Emily, he’s found somebody who is his equal,” McAdams said.
McMullin said being a husband and father hasn’t significantly changed his perspective on “our broken politics.” He said he has been concerned about issues impacting families and communities his entire career, and he has had the opportunity to learn a lot about the challenges that single mothers face in raising kids and in holding down a household on their own.
“It has also made the challenges facing our country feel even more personal because I’m caring for and interacting with the next generation on a daily basis at home,” he said.
“Right now we are fighting for a better future, one that is possible, and one where our leaders come together to solve problems,” he said. “We teach our children to do this and we must emulate it as adults.”