What Utah independent Evan McMullin says about Sen. Mike Lee in major campaign speech
The U.S. Senate challenger pulled no punches against the GOP incumbent at a rally in Salt Lake City
Utah independent Evan McMullin portrayed himself as the true conservative in the U.S. Senate race against Republican Sen. Mike Lee in a speech Wednesday in which he called the incumbent a “constitutional conman.”
Speaking to supporters at Salt City Spaces in downtown Salt Lake City, McMullin repeatedly said Lee has “betrayed” Utahns and Americans, pointing to his text message interactions with the White House after Donald Trump lost the 2020 election.
Conservatism is about protecting the country’s founding ideals and the institutions that enable people to realize them in their daily lives, especially including the Constitution and free and fair elections, McMullin said.
“That’s conservative, and I am a conservative,” he said. “But Mike Lee is a pretend conservative, a constitutional conman.”
Former Utah Democratic Rep. Ben McAdams and former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele also spoke at the event.
Steele, who has endorsed McMullin, said he is a Republican who has been abandoned by his party, and that it “sickens” him that it’s no longer the party of Lincoln, Reagan and Bush but has become the “cult personality of one man.”
McMullin, who ran for president as an anti-Trump independent in 2016, launched his campaign against the two-term Lee 11 months ago. Lee voted for McMullin in that election before embracing Trump, who has endorsed his reelection effort.
Noting Lee’s 2016 vote, Steele said, “so it should be real easy for us to vote for Evan McMullin this time around.”
In April, McMullin and some prominent Democrats in the state, including McAdams and Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson, persuaded the Utah Democratic Party to not advance its own candidate and instead throw its support behind him. The unprecedented move has focused national attention on the race that Politico described as the “strangest Senate race in America.”
Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics polling show Lee with a five-point lead among registered voters in Utah.
Wednesday marked the first major speech of McMullin’s campaign, coming two months from Election Day on Nov. 8 Much of it repeated scathing criticism he has leveled at Lee on social media and in other settings.
Lee and McMullin engaged in a Twitter war last month, with McMullin accusing Lee of trying to help Trump overturn the 2020 election results with fake electors — which he did again in Wednesday’s speech — and Lee accusing McMullin of defamation.
“Stick to the truth or lawyer up,” Lee tweeted from his personal account, @BasedMikeLee, in August.
“It’s the truth, ‘Based Mike.’ Sue me,” McMullin countered.
Asked for a response to McMullin’s speech, the Lee campaign referred questions to Utah County Commissioner Amelia Powers Gardner as a surrogate for the senator.
“We’re not seeing a lot of policy (from McMullin) and we never really have,” she said, noting Lee has recently worked on solutions to the baby formula shortage and the housing crisis. “It’s just unfortunate that his opponent wants to just kind of throw darts at him rather than tell us where he stands on the issues.”
A former county clerk who oversaw the 2020 presidential election in Utah County, Gardner defended Lee’s text messages with the White House, saying he wasn’t trying to overturn the election but counsel Trump on what was and wasn’t constitutional.
“He is a constitutional conservative, and he does follow the Constitution,” she said, adding Lee voted to certify the election.
In his speech, McMullin, a former CIA undercover operative, went after Lee over his allegiance to Trump, calling him a “loyal sycophant to an aspiring authoritarian, trading away his oath to the Constitution to serve the unconstitutional ambitions of that one man.”
He also brought up Lee comparing Trump to revered Book of Mormon leader Captain Moroni during a campaign rally in Arizona, which he called a “most disgraceful and false comparison.”
“Sen. Lee, Donald Trump is no Captain Moroni,” McMullin said.
Other than being anti-Trump — “a two-bit tyrant” — and anti-Lee while expressing his conservative bona fides, McMullin, a former Republican, didn’t specifically talk about how he intends to win over Democrats.
After his speech, McMullin said conservatism is a commitment to the country’s core ideals of freedom and equality.
“Frankly, I think it’s something that can appeal across party lines and it should. We should all be committed to our core values. We should all be committed to our system of self-government, our democratic republic, and that’s the kind of conservatism that I’m for,” he told reporters.
Democrats, he said, might have a different name for it but they are part of his coalition of supporters because they believe in those ideals.
McMullin has said he doesn’t intend to caucus with either party if elected to the Senate.
He told reporters he has been building relationships with more independent-acting senators who want to get things done, though he wouldn’t name them. He said senators on both sides of the aisle are looking forward to having another vote for getting legislation passed.
McMullin said his coalition of Republicans, Democrats and independents isn’t coming together just to defeat Lee. It is united in a commitment to fix the broken politics of Washington. He said he’s committed to finding common ground to bring down health care costs, protect air and water, cut inflation, and lower the national debt.
“And we’re united in our commitment to remaining independent of the party bosses who demand loyalty at the expense of the people,” McMullin said in his speech. “We will work for Utahns and the people of our country, and for no one else.”