Former independent presidential candidate Evan McMullin has his sights set on a new office.

The CIA veteran, former U.S. House Republican policy director and government reform advocate who now lives in Highland, Utah, launched his campaign for the U.S. Senate on Tuesday, challenging two-term incumbent GOP Sen. Mike Lee.

McMullin, 45, will once again run as an independent.

“I’m not running as a Republican or a Democrat,” McMullin said in a press release. “I’m running as a patriot, as an American committed to defending our nation and changing our politics for the better.”

America increasingly faces crisis after crisis that never gets solved, including forest fires, water shortages, a never-ending pandemic, the high cost of health care and an economy threatened by inflation and an exploding national debt, according to McMullin.

“Our politics are broken,” he said. “And it’s putting our country in danger. We need leaders who will unite rather than divide. Washington has left us so polarized that we’re failing to overcome major problems facing the nation and it has to change.”

Evan McMullin is back, and he’s ready to remake American politics

An article in the conservative National Review on Monday called McMullin a “fraud” and described Lee as one of the “most traditionally conservative, non-Trumpy senators” in Washington. 

Lee vehemently tried to stop Donald Trump from securing the GOP presidential nomination at the 2016 national convention and called for him to step aside as a candidate after the “Access Hollywood” video surfaced. He steadfastly refused to endorse Trump and cast a “protest” vote for McMullin for president.

But since Trump won the election, Lee became one of his staunchest supporters. During the 2020 campaign, Lee referred to Trump as “Captain Moroni,” a revered Book of Mormon military commander who inspired soldiers to fight for their religion, freedom and family. 

Six weeks after the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, Lee traveled to Trump’s posh Mar-a-Lago resort for a high-priced fundraiser with conservative firebrand Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., and Florida GOP Rep. Matt Gaetz.

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

McMullin said Lee has “lost his way.”

“He’s become a partisan obstructionist who cares more about dividing Americans than solving problems,” McMullin said in an interview. “I think Washington has turned Lee’s head and we’ve got to make a change.”

Lee’s approval rating among Utah voters has languished below 50% in Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics polls. While he does well among those who identify themselves as conservatives and Republicans, his numbers drop significantly among Utahns generally.

So far, two Republicans — former Utah lawmaker Becky Edwards and longtime communications, public policy and political strategist Ally Isom — are challenging Lee. Democrats Nick Mitchell, Austin Searle and Allen Glines have also started campaigns.

McMullin, a BYU graduate, said he would bring to Washington the “Utah way,” which he described as a more compassionate, selfless and independent way to solve problems and includes leadership that sticks to principles but finds common ground. Utah has an opportunity in 2022 to change the political dysfunction and chaos that currently drive politics, and have much greater influence in the Senate, he said.

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McMullin said political leaders are too influenced by the extremes in politics. He said he “sincerely believes” the country and Utah need an independent politician who can build cross-party coalitions.

“It’s very difficult to do that these days if you pledge loyalty to one tribal party or the other,” he said.

McMullin said his task as an independent candidate is to mobilize Republicans, Democrats, United Utah Party members and unaffiliated voters who want to see the state have better representation in Washington. He said he believes he can be competitive with Lee.

“I don’t see any other way to win this election than building a cross-partisan coalition,” he said. “And by the way, I think that’s what the state needs. I think it will help unify us but I also think it’s what the country needs.”

In August 2016, McMullin announced his 11th-hour bid for president as an independent, calling Trump a “true threat” to democracy. He said at the time that he was in to win but also to start a new conservative movement. His three-month campaign attracted attention nationwide, though he only got on the ballot in 11 states. For a time in Utah, polls had him ahead of Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Evan McMullin talks about his campaign to challenge GOP Sen. Mike Lee as an independent for the Senate.
Evan McMullin talks about his campaign to challenge Mike Lee as an independent candidate for U.S. Senate in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Trump eventually won Utah with 45% of the vote, followed by Clinton with 29% and McMullin with 21%.

An April 2017 poll conducted by JMC Analytics for the Centrist Project found McMullin would beat now retired Republican Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch in a head-to-head matchup. Hatch didn’t run in 2018 and GOP Sen. Mitt Romney now holds the seat.

Since his run for president, McMullin co-founded Stand Up Republic, a nonprofit focused on uniting people across party lines around founding ideals, electing honorable leaders, and ensuring accountable government. McMullin, who got married in June, is also a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania. 

McMullin said he plans to travel to every county to meet Utahns “in every corner of the state.” He said he will raise money from individuals and his campaign will not be funded by political action committees.