Evan McMullin or party loyalty? Utah Democrats face ‘reckoning’ in bid to unseat Mike Lee
Utah Democrats have an unprecedented choice to make. A motion is looming on whether to back Evan McMullin instead of own candidate
The Utah Democratic Party is poised to possibly make an unprecedented move.
During the party’s convention in Murray on Saturday, a faction of Utah Democrats plan to put forth a motion to opt against choosing a Democratic U.S. Senate nominee and instead back independent candidate Evan McMullin in his bid to unseat Republican Sen. Mike Lee this November.
If Utah Democratic delegates go that route, it would be the first maneuver of its kind in the state’s history.
Some Utah Democrats, like former Congressman Ben McAdams, think it’s the right move for the best chance at ousting Lee.
“Democrats have a big decision to make,” McAdams told the Deseret News in an interview Tuesday, confirming the motion will be coming during Saturday’s convention.
McAdams stopped short of predicting the motion would pass, trusting delegates to make their decision, but said he thinks it has a fair chance.
“I’ve been talking to a lot of delegates,” he said, “and in my conversations I’m hearing strong support for this push.”
Yes, McMullin “isn’t going to align with Democrats on every issue,” McAdams said. “But he has a path for winning this race.”
“(Delegates) are capable of weighing the pros and cons in this race,” McAdams said. “They understand the decision in front of them and I’m feeling good based on the feedback that I’ve received with my conversations with hundreds of delegates.”
Democrats’ dilemma in high stakes election
McAdams, along with other high-profile Utah Democrats including Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson, have thrown their support behind McMullin, a former Republican who ran an independent, anti-Trump campaign for president in 2016. But their support has not been without dissent within the Utah Democratic Party, causing dust-ups on social media over loyalty to the party.
It’s been more than 50 years since a Utah Democrat last won a U.S. Senate race (when Frank Moss won in 1970 with 56% of the vote). This year is no different, McAdams said, and a Democrat is sure to lose again.
“There’s a lot at stake in this election, and it’s time that we join together — join a coalition with moderate Republicans, independents and Democrats — to say we want a senator that’s going to be part of solving the problem, not causing problems. Someone to break the gridlock, not be a source of gridlock,” McAdams said.
“So I’m a proponent of Utah Democrats voting to not have a candidate and to join the coalition alongside Republicans, independents, United Utah Party, to have a say, to be relevant in this election rather than just give up and go down a path that we know will end in a loss,” he said.
The centrist United Utah Party endorsed McMullin at its convention last weekend.
McMullin said he was “humbled by the support of our tremendous cross-partisan coalition” ahead of Saturday’s convention and that his campaign is “working hard” to earn support from all Utahns.
“I look forward to Saturday and hope Democratic delegates will join me in bringing better leadership to Washington for Utah,” McMullin said in a prepared statement. “A majority of Utahns want to replace Sen. Mike Lee, but the only way to do that is to unite on common ground and to choose Utah, and our country, over party. If we’re united, we will replace Mike Lee and do a great deal of good for our state and our country.”
McAdams acknowledged not all Utah Democrats support that path, with opposition especially “loud and passionate” on social media.
“Certainly this is evoking strong opinions on all sides of the argument,” he said, “and it’s causing Utah Democrats to really have a moment to look inside and say, ‘Do we want to join a coalition and be relevant and have a chance at winning this election, or do we want to be isolationists and go down the path that we know will lose?’”
A divided Utah Democratic Party
Kael Weston, the lone candidate vying for the Democratic Party’s nomination in the Senate race, and his supporters strongly oppose that approach. Weston has called the effort “fundamentally disenfranchising.”
“The Utah Democratic Party is not the unseat Mike Lee party,” Weston said. “If this campaign is just about Mike Lee, Utah families lose out.”
He worries it would “short circuit” important policy issues like housing affordability, air quality and water if there’s not a Democrat on the ballot in November.
“Now, (the race is) very negative between Evan and Mike Lee,” Weston said, “and if there’s not a Democrat on the ballot I believe it will get even more negative, and a lot of those issues will be pushed aside.”
Weston said he and his team have been making “a lot of calls” to delegates, and he trusts them to make the right choice. The real issue they have to “reckon with,” he said, is whether to decide for themselves to end Democrats’ Senate bid in the auditorium at Cottonwood High School on Saturday — or let voters decide.
“I do think this is verging on being dismissive toward voters,” Weston said. “If we really are a party that prides ourselves on being focused on democracy and what an election means, it’s about voters in my mind.”
Weston said it’s far too soon for Democrats to throw in the towel. The race “really starts” on June 29, the day after the GOP primary. Leading up to November, Weston said he’s willing to sit down and have a private conversation with Lee’s GOP challengers, Becky Edwards and Ally Isom, as well as McMullin, in coming months “because we need to start thinking through what each of us probably need to do along the way.”
“But by stopping the process on April 23 for Democrats, I think it’s a real disservice to voters,” he said.
After the Utah Legislature approved “egregious” gerrymandered maps in its redistricting process early this year, Weston said he’s been in a battle against “apathy” among Utah Democrats.
“I’m trying to say, Democrats, let’s not crawl into a corner and give up,” he said.
Weston said he’s not taking the effort to squeeze him out of the race personally. Having served in Iraq and Afghanistan in war zones for the U.S. State Department, he said he’s endured much worse.
“At least there, though, the bullets are coming from the front and not necessarily from behind,” he said.
Weston said he’s more concerned about the future of the Utah Democratic Party and if abandoning the party’s effort for the Senate in 2022 could have a far-reaching impact.
“The reckoning inside the Utah Democratic Party is happening, and it wouldn’t be happening if no one had filed (to run),” he said. “But I think we’ll come out of this. I do believe the Utah Democratic Party is going to come out of this OK.”
Whatever happens, Weston said the party should focus on a “10-year rebuilding effort” focused on balancing Utah’s “political marketplace” in a healthy way.
“It’s not healthy,” Weston said, adding there are “a lot of communities” in our state that have a different view of the “Utah way” mantra. “They’re like, ‘The Utah way is the steamroll.’ And that’s not right.”
Ben Anderson, spokesman for the Utah Democratic Party, said delegates will ultimately make the decision on Saturday.
“Delegates are the highest governing body of the Utah Democratic Party,” he said. “At the state convention on Saturday, they will make many decisions about the future of our party, and we recognize and respect their right and responsibility to do so.”