The Utah Democratic Party made an extraordinary decision on Saturday.

A majority of delegates decided to not put forth a Democratic candidate to face off with Republican Sen. Mike Lee and to instead back independent candidate Evan McMullin.

The decision has big implications for Utah’s U.S. Senate race. It injects significant momentum into a more moderate, independent movement in Utah politics — and signals Utah Democrats are so eager to up the chances of beating Lee they’re willing to ditch their own candidate. At least for now.

During Saturday’s at times chaotic convention at Cottonwood High School in the Salt Lake County suburb of Murray, a faction of delegates put forth a motion to opt against choosing Kael Weston as the party’s Democratic U.S. Senate nominee and instead join McMullin’s coalition.

McMullin, a former Republican, ran an unsuccessful independent campaign for president against former President Donald Trump in 2016. Now he’s got Lee in his crosshairs.

“We know that Sen. Mike Lee was quite involved in the effort to overturn our democracy,” McMullin told reporters shortly after his victory was reflected in vote tallies, seizing another opportunity to blast Lee over his text messages to then-White House chief of staff Mark Meadows as he explored ideas on how to overturn the 2020 presidential election before ultimately deciding to vote to certify the electoral results on Jan. 6.

‘I was not there to do his bidding’: Sen. Mike Lee breaks his silence about White House text messages
U.S. Senate candidate Evan McMullin walking outside wearing a black suit.
Evan McMullin walks back to his car after an interview 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

“We have got to take a stand as Utahns,” McMullin said. “I don’t care if you’re a Democrat or or an independent or a Republican or a member of the United Utah Party, this is a line that cannot be crossed, our right to hold our leaders accountable and to vote for or against them and have a peaceful transition of power is essential for liberty and justice in America. We cannot compromise on that, and we must all be united to defend it.”

Despite several failed maneuvers from Democratic candidate Weston’s supporters to block it from coming to a vote, the motion to back McMullin won with 782 votes to Weston’s 594. It passed with 57% of the vote, according to preliminary results.

Cheers erupted from McMullin’s side of the auditorium when party officials announced the vote tallies late Saturday afternoon.

In a gaggle with reporters, Weston didn’t wear any disappointment on his face. Instead, he applauded delegates for the “important” debate, “which wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t had a Democrat make the case.”

“Of course you want to be the candidate that walks out with a unanimous degree of support, but I knew this was always going to be an important conversation to have,” Weston said, thanking his supporters. “It was a real conversation. It was loud and unpredictable, and I accept what delegates have decided to do.”

The centrist United Utah Party, which has also joined McMullin’s coalition, applauded Democrats’ decision in a prepared statement issued after the vote.

“We applaud the courage and wisdom of the Democratic Party in setting aside party loyalty and putting the needs of Utah first,” said United Utah Party Chairwoman Hillary Stirling. “In order to win elections in our current voting system, voters need to get behind a single opposition candidate.”

‘Country over party’

The move to back an independent candidate rather than their own nominee is the first effort of its kind in Utah’s party history.

The unprecedented decision, McMullin said, shows “Utah Democrats are putting country over party.”

“We have a tremendous amount of common ground (in) this coalition of Democrats, independents, principled Republicans ... who want to make a change,” McMullin said. “This idea that our differences are greater than what we have in common are just false.”

High-profile Utah Democrats including former Rep. Ben McAdams and Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson were instrumental in urging their fellow Utah Democrats to back McMullin.

They argued not putting a Democrat on the November ballot was the right move to up the chances of defeating Lee and that a Democrat would stand little chance of winning the election. They urged Utah Democrats to set aside party loyalty in order to prioritize defeating Lee above all else.

It’s been more than 50 years since a Utah Democrat last won a U.S. Senate race.

Yes, McMullin “isn’t going to align with Democrats on every issue,” McAdams told the Deseret News earlier this week. “But he has a path for winning this race.”

Saturday, McAdams told delegates McMullin can heal gridlock and dysfunction in Congress. He said McMullin would bring “new, courageous leadership to break the mold” and “heal the divide.”

“Evan is the right person for this moment,” McAdams said. “I know Evan. I trust Evan.”

Wilson, who voiced the key motion in favor of McMullin, made an emotional plea to her fellow Democrats. She said she knows from her unsuccessful bid for U.S. Senate against Sen. Orrin Hatch in 2018 “our numbers don’t add up.”

“We need this coalition. It’s a practical matter,” Wilson said. “This is a good move for us.”

McMullin, who delegates decided through a series of motions would be allowed to speak during the convention, gave a rushed, one-minute speech through scattered shouts and boos from Weston’s camp.

“I want to represent you. I’m committed to that. I will maintain my independence,” McMullin told delegates. “We will show the rest of the country how we beat people like Mike Lee who try to overturn our democracy in the shadows.”

How will this impact Utah Democrats’ future?

Weston has called the pro-McMullin effort “fundamentally disenfranchising,” saying Democrats shouldn’t “give up” and render themselves irrelevant so soon in the election.

Asked if he was concerned about what impact Saturday’s decision would have on the future of the Utah Democratic Party, Weston told reporters, “Good question.”

“Today was a crossroads and a certain path was taken,” he said. “It’s a path that’s not been taken before. ... I think the Utah Democratic Party will continue to have an important role. A lot of people will be licking their wounds for a while.”

Kael Weston poses for a photo in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2022. A majority of delegates to the Democratic State Convention decided to not put forth a Weston as a candidate to face off with Republican Sen. Mike Lee and instead back independent candidate Evan McMullin. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Weston said he’s more concerned about ensuring Utah has a “healthy political marketplace, and that’s not going to be possible if we don’t have Democrats on the ballot.”

Asked if he’ll now support McMullin in his bid, Weston said, ‘What I’m supporting is making sure that this conversation goes forward in the way that it should so we can beat Mike Lee and make sure that we support all good candidates. ... I’m not opposed to making sure that we don’t let broken glass get in the way of what’s right for Utah.”

McMullin’s candidacy drove ardent division within the Utah Democratic Party. The contentious debate boiled over into at times fiery exchanges between delegates.

Jon Hansen, a Democratic delegate from Salt Lake County, said he “never imagined my fellow Democrats would disenfranchise me.”

“We need to stay united. Democrats need to be on the ballot,” Hansen urged his fellow delegates while speaking in support of Weston’s nomination. “It’s time to stay true to your Democratic position and party. If you want to vote for (McMullin), God bless you, but we need a Democrat today.”

At one point, when party officials took a brief recess to sort through a mess of conflicting motions, one delegate supporting Weston walked over to the right side of the auditorium — where McMullin and most of his supporters were sitting — and began yelling.

“How did you hijack this convention?” he shouted. “We don’t need to break up what’s left of the Democratic Party!”

“We’re Democrats!” one of McMullin’s delegate supporters shouted back at him.

“(Expletive) you!” the man yelled back, drawing scattered gasps and boos before storming away.

Weston also argued choosing not to put a Democrat on the November ballot would “short-circuit” the democratic process at the expense of important policy issues that Democrats care about like housing, air quality and water.

“The Utah Democratic Party is not the unseat Mike Lee party,” Weston told the Deseret News earlier this week. “If this campaign is just about Mike Lee, Utah families lose out.”

However, in an interview while waiting for voting results to be tabulated, Weston said regardless of the outcome he felt good about how the state convention debate played out.

“This is democracy in practice,” he said.

“Whatever happens, it’s incredibly important that the Utah Democratic Party understands there are a lot of voters in this state who right now feel like their vote doesn’t matter,” Weston said.

“This election does matter. Sen. Mike Lee is beatable. And how we beat him is not going to take just some of us, but all of us.”

Other Utah Democratic Party results

For Utah’s 1st Congressional seat currently held by Republican Rep. Blake Moore, Rick Jones will be the Democratic candidate. Jones ran unopposed for the party’s nomination.

For Utah’s 2nd Congressional seat currently held by Republican Rep. Chris Stewart, Nick Mitchell will be the Democratic nominee.

  • Mitchell won the Utah Democratic Party’s nomination with over 60% of the vote to his opponent Steve Hartwick’s 39.8%.

For Utah’s 3rd Congressional seat currently held by Republican Rep. John Curtis, Glenn Wright will be the Democratic nominee.

  • Wright won the delegates’ nomination handily, with over 91% of the vote to Archie Williams’ 8.8%.

For Utah’s 4th Congressional District seat currently held by Utah Republican Rep. Burgess Owens, Darlene McDonald will be the Democratic nominee. McDonald ran unopposed for the party’s nomination.

The Utah Democratic Party will have a new chairwoman and vice chairman.

  • Diane Lewis was elected the party’s new chairwoman with over 61% of the vote to her opponent Quang Dang’s nearly 39%.
  • Oscar Mata was elected the party’s new vice chairman. He ran unopposed.

In the race for the Utah State School Board’s District 6, Utah Democrats picked Carol Lear to be their nominee. Lear won with 80% of the vote to Joshua Sine’s 20%.