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Opinion: Are Mike Lee and Evan McMullin really this close in the race for U.S. Senate?

Utah’s U.S. Senate race is making national and global news as Evan McMullin and Mike Lee get ready for November voting. What does McMullin’s independent candidacy status mean if he is elected?

SHARE Opinion: Are Mike Lee and Evan McMullin really this close in the race for U.S. Senate?
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Sen. Mike Lee, left, and Senate candidate Evan McMullin, right. Incumbent Lee and challenger McMullin will face off on the ballot in November for Utah’s senate seat.

Stuart Johnson and Jeffrey D., Allred, Deseret News

The dog days of summer — and politics — are officially here. An unexpected political heat wave, the U.S. Senate race, is contributing to the sizzle. We’d prefer to lie down and pant in a cool spot under a shade tree, but as political meteorologists, we must stay on the job and provide an accurate forecast.

The Mike Lee/Evan McMullin Senate race is getting some national notice and polls show it is closer than many people expected. Are the surveys reading the voters accurately?

Pignanelli: “The difference between life and the movies is that a script has to make sense, and life doesn’t.” — Joseph Mankiewicz  

Hollywood has distributed dozens of movies with plots of outsider candidates using quirky tactics to achieve high office. So Utahns can be excused for a surreal feeling of living in a cinematic environment when pondering the Senate race. Indeed, the strangeness of this contest has captured national and global attention.

This unusual fascination captured the imagination of many voters. Meanwhile, Lee was under assault from primary opponents for at least six months, while McMullin enjoyed a free pass. McMullin supporters publicly heaped praise for his lofty ideals (some comparing him to Abraham Lincoln) while disparaging Lee. Consequently, some surveys are predicting a close race.

However, those polls that survey “likely to vote” respondents (and not just those registered to vote) demonstrate a much larger margin between Lee and McMullin. Campaign veterans prefer such sound methodology. Thus, perceptions may be based more on hope by some in the media and political class.

The shroud of mystique surrounding this race will be yanked by the forces of reality. Even this happens in the movies.

Webb: This is obviously a crazy time in politics, and no politician should feel comfortable. McMullin has obviously touched a nerve with his anti-Donald Trump rhetoric and he demonstrated some finesse in winning the support of the Democratic Party.

But the challenge for McMullin is that this race is going to be nationalized as a referendum on Joe Biden and the mess the Democrats have made of the country. It’s not just about McMullin and Lee, or their personalities, or about Trump, or whether Lee has been too close to Trump.

In the cool autumn, when voters really begin to pay attention, the Senate election will be framed as an opportunity to turn things around, or continue to lurch toward even bigger government and more spending envisioned in the arch-liberal Democratic agenda.

Whether the U.S. Senate is controlled by liberal Democrats or conservative Republicans may be determined by one or two races, the Lee/McMullin race among them. A vote for Lee is a clear vote for Mitch McConnell taking control as Senate majority leader. It’s a vote for a more conservative future for the country.

A vote for McMullin is a vote for the unknown. He apparently has Republican roots, but he’s been warmly embraced by liberal Democrats, and he won’t commit to supporting the GOP agenda. A vote for McMullin is a vote for Chuck Schumer to continue to run the Senate.

To many mainstream conservatives, even those who don’t like Trump and aren’t totally comfortable with Lee, it’s still a pretty easy choice. Voting for McMullin could put a conservative resurgence in jeopardy.

Both supporters and detractors of McMullin are raising the issue of his refusal to caucus with Republicans or Democrats if elected. Some claim this is an advantage and others say it will hurt Utah. Is this a real issue?

Pignanelli: An element of the Utah psyche is a well-deserved antagonism towards the federal government. Despite these emotions, individuals, families and businesses depend upon a congressional delegation that can efficiently interact with federal agencies and Congress. This includes issues regarding immigration, regulations, appropriations, etc.

Regardless of intentions, someone who refuses to participate in a caucus will be deemed an outlier by leadership. McMullin is OK with such a result (“they can put me in the supply closet”). This is risky to Utahns wishing assistance from his office. Careless proposals to hamper congressional constituent services must be a significant election issue.

Webb: To be at all effective, McMullin would need to find a Senate home, formal or informal, with one of the parties. That’s what most other independents have done. McMullin is supported by Democrats, so aligning with Democrats would seem likely.

How will this strange race impact down ballot congressional and state elections?

Pignanelli: Those Utah voters still misty-eyed over McMullin in November will be available for other candidates to garner and should strategize accordingly. Without a candidate on the ballot for the U.S. Senate, Democrats are trying to minimize the resulting constraints on coordinating campaign activities.

Webb: The Senate race won’t have a big impact on other contests, but it can’t help Democrats to not even have a candidate at the top of the ticket. 

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 state Legislature. Email: frankp@xmission.com.