Sen. Mike Lee wins one of the most competitive Senate races Utah has seen in decades
Evan McMullin calls on Utahns to come together: ‘Divided we are weak ... but united we have the strengths to overcome’
In the end, the experiment to run an independent instead of a Democrat in a challenge to incumbent Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee failed.
Evan McMullin succeeded in building a coalition of Republicans, Democrats and independents, but it wasn’t enough to overcome Lee’s conservative GOP base in one of the most intriguing U.S. Senate races in the country.
Utah voters returned Lee to the Senate for a third term Tuesday. As of late Tuesday night, Lee had received about 55% of the vote to 41% for McMullin, with votes still being counted. McMullin conceded just before 11 p.m.
“Utah has spoken loudly and clearly that the policies of the Democratic Party have failed us, failed us to the point that red states are having none of it. And tonight blue states don’t want much of it either,” Lee told supporters gathered at the Hyatt Regency in Salt Lake City.
Republicans were projected to take control of the House, while the Senate remained a toss-up with some key races yet to be decided.
The GOP will have the opportunity to “go on the offensive,” Lee said.
McMullin didn’t address his crowd of supporters until just before 11 p.m., when he walked out onto the stage at the Mid-Valley Performing Arts Center in the suburb of Taylorsville to the song “Seven Nation Army” by The White Stripes. Standing with his family, he told the crowd he had just called Lee and “acknowledged he’s won reelection.” Crestfallen supporters booed.
“I truly hope that he upholds his oath to the Constitution during his upcoming term,” McMullin said.
McMullin thanked his supporters, telling them, “We have so much to be proud of.”
“We’ve come together in a historic way, and this effort — our effort — has shown the country that there is another way forward, a more constructive way forward for our politics and for our nation,” McMullin said.
By bringing together independents, Democrats, Republicans and members of other third parties, McMullin said Utahns of all political backgrounds “forged bonds of trust,” bonds that are “centered on the idea and the clear reality that we cannot effectively solve the tremendous challenges that we face and keep America strong if any of us go at it alone.”
“Divided we are weak, and these challenges threaten our future. But united we have the strength to overcome,” McMullin said. “Tonight’s results are proof of the power of unity. Although our coalition did not prevail, we did something here in Utah that hasn’t been done in 50 years. ... Unity is what made this election the most competitive in nearly a half a century.”
McMullin and Lee engaged in one of the most intriguing Senate races in the country as well as the most competitive in Utah in decades, not to mention what appears to be the most expensive in state history.
In addition to being Lee’s stiffest reelection challenge during his two terms in office, the race against McMullin was among the nastiest in Utah.
“A Democrat facing a Republican is one thing. A Republican facing a Democrat pretending to be an independent is quite another,” Lee said.
“My focus has been on my policies. I talk about my opponent far less than I talk about my policies. I can’t say the same for my opponent.”
Like Republicans across the country, Lee spent much of the past few weeks talking about inflation, blaming it on Biden administration policies and federal spending that he opposed. Lee emphasized to voters the need to keep the seat in Republican hands to help the GOP take the Senate.
Utahns are tired of liberal policies that do nothing but drive up prices and strip away freedoms, Lee said. Families, he said, are spending an extra $949 a month because of President Joe Biden’s failed policies.
“We’ve got to stop what we’re doing that’s causing the problem. We’ve had massive runaway deficits for a long time, but these guys have taken it to a whole new level. These guys have made an art form out of it,” Lee said.
The senator said the first order of business for Republicans is to overhaul the spending process, regulatory reform and aggressive oversight of “this out-of-control administration.”
“Things are going to be different this time,” he said.
Lee campaigned on his belief that the federal government’s role is to protect life, liberty and property within the confines of the Constitution, which he said is how he has done his job the past six years. He said if he wins, he would continue to fight for constitutionally limited government.
“The worst thing that can happen when we follow the constitution more strictly, more carefully, more, more aggressively is that we have less government,” he said.
“Evan owes you an apology, Mike,” one man shouted as Lee gave his victory speech.
“I take seriously my oath to protect the Constitution,” Lee replied, pulling out his pocket Constitution.
Before election night results posted, one of McMullin’s most prominent supporters, former Congressman Ben McAdams, said regardless of how McMullin fares the “ramifications of this race are seismic” and can show the nation “there is a path, there is a lane to have competitive elections in a place like Utah.”
“This race is one of the closest races in Utah in the last 50 years, and that is a win,” McAdams told the Deseret News as polls closed. “We’re hopeful that Evan will come out victorious tonight, but regardless of how this specific race turns out, Evan McMullin has started a movement that I hope will reshape American politics. A movement where races are won by building coalitions and bringing people together, not by dividing and making Americans afraid of other Americans.”
During the campaign, McMullin called Lee an extremist who votes against legislation rather than looking for solutions. He said was a “constitutional con man” who violated his oath. McMullin vowed that as a senator he would not bend to party bosses or special interests but work for common ground. Utah, he said, would become a valuable player on important bills in Congress.
During the campaign, Lee touted his bipartisan work on criminal justice reform and addressing the nationwide baby formula shortage.
The contest has drawn national attention because McMullin ran as an independent with the backing of the Utah Democratic Party.
In an unprecedented move last spring, the party voted to back McMullin instead of putting up its own candidate against Lee, a strategy urged by prominent Democrats in the state, including McAdams.
Democrats, who have not won a Senate race in Utah since 1970, saw an independent as their best chance to oust Lee, who cruised to victory in his previous two elections.
Though Lee has tried to paint McMullin as a Democrat, McMullin repeatedly said he would maintain his independence if elected, including not caucusing with either party in the Senate.
The two candidates have spent millions of dollars on their campaigns, while well-funded super PACs unleashed a never-ceasing barrage of mostly negative television ads, social media posts and mailers on Utah voters.
As of Monday, Lee had spent at least $9.7 million and McMullin $5.8 million, according to OpenSecrets.org, which tracks campaign spending based on Federal Election Commission financial reports.
Super PACs have shelled out $10.4 million for Lee, most notably Club for Growth Action and its allied PACs, which spent $8.8 million alone. Outside spending for McMullin, mostly from Put Utah First PAC, totaled around $7.4 million.
In all, the price tag exceeds $31 million in the Utah Senate race, eclipsing the $23 million spent on the 4th Congressional District race between McAdams and Burgess Owens two years ago.
A Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll showed McMullin and Lee running neck and neck in late October. Other polls of the race, though, were all over the map, with some showing Lee with a double-digit lead and others giving McMullin a slight edge.
McMullin has walked a fine line trying to convince Utah voters that Lee is not serving their interests and that he would represent them better though he’s not running as a Republican. He has harshly criticized Lee to appeal to Democrats while trying to pull over what he called “principled” Republicans.
McMullin also exploited some of Lee’s missteps the past couple of years, including comparing former President Donald Trump to Book of Mormon hero Captain Moroni, a remark that offended many members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
A former Republican who ran a late-hour, anti-Trump campaign for president in 2016, McMullin came out swinging in his race for the Senate. He attacked Lee from the get-go, hitting him hard over his role in Trump’s effort to overturn the 2020 election. McMullin claimed Lee tried to recruit fake electors, and called Lee a threat to Democracy and a “constitutional con man.”
Lee deflected the jabs, threatened to sue McMullin and demanded an apology for what he said were lies that McMullin was spreading. Lee said he heard rumors about states sending alternative slates of electors and did his due diligence to track them down, including spending hours a day cold-calling election officials. He said he never advocated for replacing state electors and ultimately voted to certify the election for Biden.
Trump endorsed Lee before the GOP primary and twice more during the general election, though the Lee campaign hardly acknowledged the endorsements. Unlike some congressional races around the country, Trump didn’t seem to be a big factor in the Utah Senate contest.
McMullin sued Club for Growth and local TV stations over an ad that he says was doctored to make it sound like he said something he didn’t say. The lawsuit is pending.