SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — An independent candidate with backing from Democrats is attempting to end the Republican stranglehold on U.S. Senate seats in Utah, hoping to harness the antipathy many voters in the state feel toward former President Donald Trump becoming the GOP’s standard-bearer.
Evan McMullin has spent months attacking second-term Republican Sen. Mike Lee and characterizing him as a Trump acolyte who abandoned his beloved U.S. Constitution to assist in efforts to overturn the 2020 election. Lee has tried to focus the race on everyday issues such as the cost of living and aimed to appeal to the state’s Republican roots by making a case about how important he thinks it is for the party to retake the Senate.
Lee won election to his first two terms in the Senate by convincing margins, but both candidates this year have said they expect the race to be close.
An upset victory from McMullin, who ran for president in 2016 as an independent, would complicate both parties’ efforts to win control of Congress. McMullin, a former Republican, was endorsed by the Utah Democratic Party earlier this year but is running as an independent, unaffiliated with either party. Unlike independent Sens. Angus King of Maine and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, McMullin has vowed not to caucus with either party.
The race will serve as a referendum on the direction that Trump has taken the GOP. Religious and socially conservative voters in Utah lean Republican, yet many support the former president less than some of the party’s other standard-bearers, such as Sen. Mitt Romney.
However, both the state Republican Party and the electorate have gradually shifted to embrace Trump since his 2016 ascendance. He only won 45.5% of the state’s vote in 2016, when McMullin’s independent bid won 21.5%, but in 2020, he won 58.1%.
McMullin has repeatedly hammered Lee for text messages he exchanged with former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows that were published by the House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. In the November 2020 exchange, Lee appeared to ask for guidance from Team Trump, discussed ideas to challenge the election results, and mentioned communicating with Republicans in swing states about putting forth alternate slates of electors.
Lee has claimed he was merely doing due diligence and he notes that he did not join congressional Republicans who objected to the results when they were certified on Jan. 6, the day of the insurrection.
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