SALT LAKE CITY – Utah Democrats' decision to back an independent rather than nominate a member of their own party to take on Republican Mike Lee transformed the state's U.S. Senate race from foregone conclusion to closely watched slugfest.
Independent Evan McMullin, an anti-Trump former Republican best known for his longshot 2016 presidential bid, attracted millions in outside spending in his campaign against Lee. He forced the second-term Republican to engage with voters more than in prior elections and emphasize an independent streak and willingness to buck leaders of his own party.
Ultimately, though, it wasn't even close. Lee is on his way to a double-digit win.
That's spurring a debate: Did Democrats’ strategy create a blueprint to make Republicans campaign hard, compete for moderates and expend resources in future races? Or does the sizeable loss prove that Republicans’ vice grip is impenetrable in the short term, no matter the strategy?
The answers could contain lessons for both red and blue states unaccustomed to competitive elections.
Some Democrats say supporting McMullin was worth it — it shifted the political conversation, made the race competitive and forced Lee to spend almost double what he spent in his 2016 campaign. But other Democrats say the strategy hurt down-ballot candidates who didn't have a strong top-of-the-ticket contender to help boost them.
“Building my bench in that sense is going to be so much harder. How do I convince candidates, going forward, that the Democratic Party will support them?” said Katie Adams-Anderton, Democratic Party chair in Utah’s second largest county.
Utah is among the fastest growing states, and Democrats hope they will be able to compete as the electorate becomes younger and more urban. Yet Republicans currently hold both Senate seats and all four congressional seats, occupy every statewide office, and this week expanded their supermajorities in the Legislature.
Four years after running for U.S. Senate herself, Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson supported Democrats' decision to back McMullin. She credits it with making Lee sweat. Though McMullin lost, she said, coalescing behind an independent benefited voters by making the race competitive. She hopes putting Lee on his heels will influence how he governs and votes in the U.S. Senate.
“This was a unique moment, and I actually do think we’ve lost an opportunity by not electing Evan to help break up some of the hardened partisanship,” she said, noting that whether backing an independent was a good strategy depended largely on circumstances.
Votes remain to be counted, but Lee is on track to defeat McMullin by double digits. That's a narrower margin than his 41 percentage-point victory in 2016 over grocery store clerk Misty Snow but wider than McMullin's team anticipated.
McMullin won 100,000 more votes than Utah Democrats' four congressional candidates did collectively, but preliminary results don't suggest his campaigning against the two-party system energized voters enough to substantially buoy turnout.
Independents have won Senate races in Vermont and Maine, yet in deeply red states like Utah, party politics remain entrenched and important to voters.
To put together a fragile coalition of Democrats, Republicans and independents, McMullin focused closely on threats to democracy. Rather than campaign on traditional midterm election issues, he attacked Lee’s November 2020 text messages to Trump’s White House chief of staff about ways to challenge President Joe Biden’s victory.
Both Lee and Democrats skeptical of his candidacy criticized McMullin for being unclear on issues such as abortion or infrastructure spending.
“You say you want to put country over party. I respect that,” Lee said at an October debate, addressing McMullin. “But parties are an important proxy for ideas. You see, because it’s ideas more than parties that tell the people how you will vote.”
Kael Weston, the Democrat Senate candidate who lost the party's backing when it lined up behind McMullin, acknowledged it would have been difficult for a Democrat to defeat Lee. But he said McMullin's focus came at the expense of local concerns, such as water or the closure of rural post offices. Focusing on those kinds of issues is the path to making elections competitive in red states, not becoming “Republican lite," he said.
Though outside spending from Democratic-donor funded PACs and conservative groups like Club for Growth reflect how the race was more competitive than usual, Weston said, McMullin's attempts to distance himself from Biden and Democrats hurt Democrats who were lower on the ballot.
“If all you see for three months is, Joe Biden is evil and Democrat is a four-letter word, that has an effect,” he said, noting the anti-McMullin television ads might have hurt Democratic candidates for statehouse seats.