After the television cameras stopped rolling at the debate Monday between Republican Sen. Mike Lee and independent challenger Evan McMullin, they separately took questions in what’s known as a media scrum.
The Utah Debate Commission, which sponsored the event, arranged for each candidate to face reporters to talk about the debate and answer questions on other topics. After the lively, sometimes tense, debate, both had a lot more to say about themselves and each other. A Deseret News Hinckley Institute of Politics poll shows them in a tight race for the Senate.
While the hour-long televised debate went off the air before the media scrum, the debate commission’s livestream continued until the last candidate had left the stage. The entire debate, along with the scrum, can be viewed online at the commission’s website.
Here is a sampling of the post-debate question-and-answer sessions for McMullin and Lee. The questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.
What do you think of him (Mike Lee) trying to separate himself from Donald Trump?
I’m glad he’s trying to do that now. But when you try to help a president who has been defeated by the will of the people to stay in power despite the will of the people, that is the most egregious betrayal you could imagine, I think, of our Constitution and the American republic. So votes aside, we need people who are willing to defend our constitutional system no matter who’s in power. And when the will of the people is voiced through a free and fair election, that needs to be reflected in a peaceful transfer of power. Sen. Lee was part of an effort to overturn that system so that he and his allies could hold onto power.
How do you feel like it went? How did you feel like you did?
I’ll leave that to all of you to decide. That’s your domain. But I think we were able to have a spirited discussion and I think people saw where there are areas of commonality and where there are major differences. I think the two major differences here are, No. 1, that when I swear an oath to the Constitution as a young CIA officer, I keep it. I put my life on the line more times than I can remember to fulfill my oath to defend the Constitution. Sen. Lee took a similar oath, or the same oath, to defend the Constitution when he became a senator and what did he do? He betrayed it. We have got to hold him accountable.
Secondly, by the way, I’ll say that we have two very different leadership styles. I’m committed to working with others to get things done. He takes a very different approach. It’s his way or the highway.
Was there a turning point for you tonight in the debate?
I don’t think so. I think it was a lively debate the whole time. He was able to make his points and then I was able to make mine. I think that’s what debates are for. I didn’t sense a turning point but I was pleased to have an opportunity to offer my vision for representing Utah in the U.S. Senate that I think is more consistent with who we are and more consistent certainly with our interests, whether it’s lowering inflation, ensuring that we have the water that we need, lowering health care costs. We have two very different approaches and I think voters should have a good sense of it.
What are you going to do in the next few weeks to convince voters, especially undecided voters, to vote for you?
We’re going to be reaching them in all forms. We’re going to be knocking on their doors, we’re going to be calling them, we’re going to be reaching them with ads. Our coalition of Republicans, Democrats and independents is growing. We outraised Mike Lee almost 2 to 1 last quarter and we took zero money from special interest groups. Much of his money continues to come from these Washington special interest groups that own him and own his votes in the U.S. Senate. But I refuse to take a cent of that money. That’s why our coalition is growing because this is an effort to represent people, to represent Utah and to help lead our country forward.
The Washington Post reported that Mitt Romney and Mike Lee had a phone call last week. Have you talked to Mitt Romney on the phone about the campaign?
No, I have not. But I’ll tell you I consider Sen. Romney a friend. I appreciate very much his principled service in the Senate and his leadership. I know that if I prevail, I will work very, very closely with Sen. Romney on most issues. One thing I will not do is go on cable news attacking Sen. Romney as our other U.S. senator. I think it’s shameful what I saw this week from Sen. Lee attacking our other senator. We need two senators who will work together to put the best interests of our state first to get things done for us, to deliver for us.
What are you going to do up to Election Day to convince voters, especially those who are undecided, to choose you?
I’m going to continue to focus on issues. As I travel the state, a bunch of issues come up but there are three in particular that come up more than any other. The first is inflation. People are upset that the average Utah family is shelling out an additional $949 a month every month for the basic necessities relative to the day President Biden took office. Since January of 2021, as measured in Utah, this amounts to 16% inflation here. It’s affected Utah more than many other states per household. The second issue is inflation. And the third issue is also inflation. This is eclipsing all others.
Did he (Evan McMullin) lay any gloves on you tonight?
He certainly tried. He’s doing what he’s gotta do. His base expects that of him. His base wants aggressive, fierce, harsh attacks, even baseless attacks if necessary, and he delivered. He delivered to that base, the base that through ActBlue has raised him millions of dollars, through that base to which he has contributed $1.6 million in the last quarter alone into the Democratic industrial complex. If you look at the other clients served by his chief vendors who’ve gotten so much of his money, they are not Republicans. They are not independents. They are liberal, liberal Democrats from all across the country.
What about Sen. Mitt Romney remaining neutral?
Mitt Romney and I are friends. We work together. We’re the only two senators in the entire Senate who as home state senators have combined our constituent services work. We’re two of the only home state senators with offices across the hall from each other. Mitt Romney and I have a good relationship. That will continue. That remains true today. That will continue to be true after this race is over. Obviously, the door is always open if he wanted to endorse. I understand it. He’s made clear he’s got two friends in this race. He wants to stay out of it. I can respect that.
You said multiple times in the debate you voted less with former President Donald Trump than every Republican senator except for Rand Paul and Susan Collins. Why express that distance with President Trump?
My opponent is accusing me of being a partisan bootlicker, I think is the word he used, and I hope you asked him about his civility on that. He’s definitely delivering to his base, which exacts and demands the opposite of that, and he’s delivered. He’s attacked me as some sort of person beholden to party bosses, to Mitch McConnell, to President Trump. It’s simply not true. It’s contrary to fact. So I pointed that out to illustrate the ridiculousness of that assertion.
When I was first elected to the Senate, I promised to make my own decisions, and to not outsource my thinking to anyone, whether party bosses or anyone else. I’ve taken that promise very seriously.
Do you think you helped yourself tonight?
I certainly hope I helped the voters of Utah to see a contrast between our two messages, to see a difference between two candidates. I’ve done my best to make my entire campaign, including my performance tonight, about what I stand for and about the fact that I believe the purpose of government is to protect life, liberty and property within the federal government to do that within the confines of what the Constitution authorizes. That, in fact, is the source of a lot of the needless contention in our country. America is a great country. Its government sometimes stirs up contention, and it stirs up even more contention when we lose sight of the necessarily limited role of the federal government. We compound that further when we excessively consolidate more power within the federal government in the executive branch of government. I think I communicated those things and what I would do to bring down the emotional temperature in the country, to bring about more civility.
My opponent, likewise, advanced his interests. He’s playing to his own base, to his newly adopted base. He did that exceptionally well. They expect aggressive attacks on any Republican with or without a factual foundation. That he did repeatedly and, I would add, quite successfully.