SALT LAKE CITY – Sen. Mike Lee won Utah’s Republican primary Tuesday, brushing off attacks from two challengers who criticized him for his unwavering loyalty to former President Donald Trump and uncompromising lawmaking style.
Lee’s decisive victory marked a win for Trump-aligned Republicans and illustrated the risk GOP candidates take in primary elections when they criticize the former president, even in religiously conservative states like Utah where many voters disapprove of his foul language and rough-and-tumble politics.
The second-term senator handily defeated two well-funded opponents who didn’t vote for Trump and attempted to appeal to voters disillusioned with the direction he's taken the Republican Party. But their efforts to frame Lee as a divisive politician who cares less about governing than he does television appearances and his allegiance to Trump ultimately fell short.
Lee deflected any GOP critiques in his victory speech, instead looking ahead to the November election where he'll face off against independent conservative Evan McMullin. “Now that this primary is over my hope and my expectation is that Republicans will do what we do best … Let’s come together,” Lee said at a election night party at a suburban Utah events center.
Days after the decision overturning Roe v. Wade and the constitutional right to abortion, he also framed his victory as a “choice to embrace the inalienable right to life and Utah’s values."
He now faces McMullin, who ran for president as a conservative alternative to Trump in 2016. He received more than one-fifth of the vote in Utah, where voters tend to be uncomfortable with Trump-style politics. McMullin left the GOP after Trump’s ascendance and won backing from the state Democratic Party this year. He has kept pace in campaign contributions with Lee in this year’s Senate race.
Lee supporters gathered Tuesday at an event with about 100 people, many wearing navy-blue shirts saying “I Like Mike” while country music played and conservative commentator Glenn Beck spoke.
A montage played on a projector splicing together images of families, assault-style rifles, sunsets, clouds and single-family homes.
On the campaign trail, former state lawmaker Becky Edwards and political operative Ally Isom called Lee an obstructionist and drew attention to the leak of post-election text messages he sent to then-White House chief of staff Mark Meadows. The messages, they said, showed his early involvement in efforts to overturn the 2020 election.
Lee encouraged Trump advisers to embrace discredited attorney Sidney Powell and later referenced his discussions with lawmakers in battleground states about appointing competing slates of electors to act contrary to the results, the messages showed.
Lee responded to criticisms saying that he merely encouraged Trump’s team explore available legal avenues, noting that he ultimately voted to certify the results on January 6, 2021. He’s mostly remained above the fray and not responded to other intraparty attacks, instead focusing on tried-and-true rhetoric about the U.S. constitution and criticisms of federal overreach.
Isom positioned herself as a conservative alternative to Lee, agreeing with his positions on most issues but disapproving of his uncompromising approach. Edwards staked out more moderate positions, rebuking Trump for continuing to spread disproven claims of 2020 election fraud and saying she disagrees with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.
Neither said they planned to back Lee in their concession remarks, as many primary candidates do after results come in. Edwards, who was second in voting, said in a statement she was proud of her campaign even though she lost and “grateful for the tens of thousands of Utahns who supported our campaign with the hope for a better Utah.”
Isom said in her statement she was proud she had given people hope.
“There’s a better way to engage in meaningful dialogue and address issues facing our state and nation. And we owe it to our posterity to reach real solutions, get the right things done and bring about a new dawn for the Republican Party,” Isom said.
This contested primary was a drastic departure from Lee’s first reelection campaign in 2016. That year, no primary challengers came forward to challenge him in arch-conservative Utah, after the one-time Tea Party insurgent successfully consolidated support from both grassroots conservatives and establishment Republicans.
Lee remains overwhelmingly popular among party activists, but there are some rumblings of dissatisfaction among both Republican insiders and the party’s overall electorate. Many have publicly taken issue with his willingness to shut down the federal government and be the Senate’s lone “no vote” on proposed policies.
Utah GOP Chair Carson Jorgensen said primary voter enthusiasm suggested conservatives were energized heading into the midterm election.
“The party’s strong right now. We got good headwinds with everything happening and the effects of politics on people’s daily lives,” he said, noting the effect of inflation, fuel prices and food prices, particularly on young families.
Post-primary, he said he planned to sit down with Lee to discuss how to consolidate support from the large contingent of Republicans who voted for Edwards and Isom, to convince them to back him over McMullin.
Lee could be in danger if McMullin can peel off Republican primary voters. Earlier this year, he convinced the state’s outnumbered Democrats to eschew a nominee from their party and get behind him instead, hoping that consolidating support from Democrats, independents and disillusioned Republicans could help unseat Lee.
“I’m extending an invitation to all voters who are discouraged, frustrated, and exhausted by Lee’s divisive and ineffective politics,” McMullin said in a statement after Lee’s win, noting that about one-third of primary voters had cast ballots for other candidates, according to unofficial election results Tuesday night.
The Lee-McMullin race should test the extent to which criticisms of divisiveness and the increasingly polarized state of politics resonate in the state where the predominant faith is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the political culture is rigorously polite.