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Opinion: Is Evan McMullin a threat to Sen. Mike Lee?

Many believe Utah’s culture consists of deference to authority — including major political figures. But history reveals a different perspective

A photo is taken of Evan McMullin and Arnold Thayer in Salt Lake City.
Evan McMullin, right, has a photo taken with Arnold Thayer 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

Utah Sen. Mike Lee continues to attract headlines on various controversies. Most recently, former CIA operative and congressional staffer Evan McMullin announced an independent bid to unseat the state’s senior senator. McMullin captured national attention with his 2016 anti-Donald Trump independent campaign for the presidency. But he won only 22% of the Utah vote and was a nonfactor elsewhere. We explore what new election dynamics mean for Lee’s 2022 reelection and other races.

Prior to 2000, statewide and federal Utah officials rarely encountered intraparty or independent challenges. However, more recently such obstacles to a party nomination have become commonplace. What does this suggest about national and local politics?

Pignanelli: “The conservative candidate who ignores moderates is as misguided as the moderate candidate who ignores conservatives.” Mike Lee

Many believe Utah’s culture consists of deference to authority — including major political figures. But history reveals a different perspective. Popular statewide incumbents including Gov. Michael Leavitt (2000), Gov. Olene Walker (2004), Sen. Bob Bennett (2010), Sen. Orrin Hatch (2012), Gov. Gary Herbert (2016) and Attorney General Sean Reyes (2020) all faced serious internal opposition within the GOP. (Walker and Bennett lost in convention). Therefore, challengers to Lee are not surprising — but the number of Republicans and a well-known independent is unusual.

The senatorial contest reflects current turmoil in the GOP. America’s political parties are undergoing major realignment in demography and geography. Lee is countered from the center. Yet, if Mitt Romney was up for reelection he would be facing a pushback from the right.

Lee is taking nothing for granted through aggressive fundraising in the state and throughout the country. The recent revelation by the new Bob Woodward book “Peril” could be a critical tool for how Utahns evaluate their senator. Lee’s efforts in researching the viability of claims regarding 2020 election fraud, and his ultimate vote to certify the results, demonstrates a conviction to the constitutional process. This will appeal to moderates and rational conservatives.

Although deference to incumbents has waned, most observers agree that Utah enjoys a reputation of electing competent ethical officials from both parties. Thank goodness for this dynamic.

Webb: McMullin has zero chance of defeating Lee as an independent. Utahns will say in survey research that they are fed up with the two major political parties and are open to supporting a new mainstream party or to vote for an independent. But, in reality, very few actually stray.

McMullin keeps hanging around, but he’s having little impact on Utah or national politics. Trump-trashing may be fun, but it isn’t much of a political platform. Running as an independent, McMullin doesn’t have to win a party nomination, which makes it easier for him. But it will be interesting to see if he even wins enough support to be included in the Senate election debates. He may be able to raise just enough money to continue his hobby, but he won’t be much of a distraction.

Republicans Becky Edwards and Ally Isom are legitimate contenders against Lee for the GOP nomination. They are solid, experienced candidates with charisma and strong platforms. They are both conservatives, but of the mainstream variety. Both have been disgusted by Trump’s personality, but they’re not running anti-Trump campaigns.

Lee is still the runaway favorite, however, to win the election. With Democrats in Washington, D.C., tilting far to the left with big-government programs, Utah Republican voters are going to want more of a fighter than someone who seeks middle ground.

Will Utah’s four Republican congressional incumbents face similar challenges in 2022?

Pignanelli: Utah’s congressional districts are not immune from frequent changes in incumbency, reflecting tumult occurring on national and state levels. Thus, there are rumors of potential opponents against freshmen members Blake Moore and Burgess Owens. As with the Senate election, these individuals could be opposed by someone on the other side of the political spectrum within the GOP.

Webb: Moore and Rep. John Curtis are viewed as moderates by many on the right, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see a nomination challenge by an arch-conservative state legislator or GOP activist. As a first-termer, Moore might be more vulnerable, but remember that he defeated a number of more conservative, and more experienced, GOP contenders in his first election.

Owens will easily win the GOP nomination, but a solid, moderate, likeable Democrat (like Ben McAdams or Jim Matheson) could give him a real challenge in the general election.

Meanwhile, any of the congressional races could be heavily impacted by whatever redistricting plan is ultimately adopted by the Legislature.

Is similar internal dissension occurring with national and Utah Democrats?

Pignanelli: Democrats are not shy in exposing the differences within the ranks. The extremely popular Jim Matheson faced a primary in 2010 from similar tussles between moderates and progressives. Thus, observers can expect pitched battles between far-left and centrist candidates to secure the nomination for federal and state offices.

Webb: The Utah Democratic Party, dominated by Salt Lake City liberals, is pretty far left. But, to their credit, Democrats have been smart enough to nominate centrists like Matheson and McAdams to give themselves a shot at winning a congressional seat.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a former journalist and a semiretired small farmer and political consultant. Email: lwebb@exoro.com. Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser who served as a Democrat in the Utah Legislature. Email: frankp@xmission.com.