Sen. Mike Lee is poised to win Utah’s Republican primary for the Senate on Tuesday, which would normally put him on a glide path to reelection in November.
Yet it might be the state’s most competitive Senate race in decades thanks to Evan McMullin.
Mr. McMullin ran as an independent against Donald Trump in 2016 and picked up more than 20% of Utah’s votes.
He is now running against Mr. Lee as an independent and has the support of Utah Democrats. His campaign is spotlighting Mr. Lee’s alliance with Mr. Trump in a state where some voters have grown weary of the former president.
“This is a very unique race in Utah,” said Jason Perry, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah. “This is not a traditional Utah race where you have a Democrat versus a Republican.”
Some election analysts have moved the usually safe Republican seat into the “likely Republican” category. Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics noted Democrats’ decision to back Mr. McMullin and a recent poll showing Mr. Lee with just a 4-point lead.
“The Lee-McMullin contest seems to have a little more intrigue than your average Safe Republican Senate race,” Kyle Kondik and J. Miles Coleman wrote in the Crystal Ball’s June 15 edition.
Mr. Lee’s campaign is downplaying the poll conducted by the Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics. It showed Mr. Lee with 41% of the vote and Mr. McMullin with 37% in a November matchup.
A top Lee aide said the campaign’s survey of likely voters shows Mr. Lee with a nearly 20-point lead over Mr. McMullin.
“Our campaign is focused on talking about issues, not divisive rhetoric,” Lee campaign spokesman Matt Lusty told The Washington Times. “We’re trying to help Utah families as they struggle with record inflation and soaring gas prices. Our internal numbers show there is very strong support for Sen. Lee’s reelection not only in the Republican primary but also in the general election.”
The battle between Mr. Lee and Mr. McMullin will begin in earnest after Tuesday, when Mr. Lee faces off in a primary against former state Rep. Becky Edwards and technology executive Ally Isom. Polls show Mr. Lee with a comfortable lead over both Republican opponents.
Democrats canceled their primary and instead threw their support behind Mr. McMullin. They hope he can oust Mr. Lee with a coalition of Democrats, independents and anti-Trump Republicans.
The move means the November ballot will exclude a Democratic candidate and pit Mr. Lee, 51, against Mr. McMullin, 46.
Mr. McMullin, who served in the CIA for 10 years, is a former Republican. He launched his political career in 2016 by running as an independent against Mr. Trump and became the favored candidate for “Never Trump” Republicans.
Mr. Lee once counted himself among the Never Trump coalition and voted for Mr. McMullin in 2016.
He came to support Mr. Trump and even advocated for challenging the presidential election results in 2020.
Mr. Lee ultimately changed his mind and was among the Republicans who voted to certify the election of Joseph R. Biden.
Mr. McMullin is eager to tie Mr. Lee to Mr. Trump’s bid to stop Congress’ certification of Mr. Biden’s 2020 victory. He seized on text messages leaked to media in April that showed Mr. Lee on Nov. 7, 2020, offering “unequivocal support” to Mr. Trump’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, “to exhaust every legal and constitutional remedy at your disposal to restore America’s faith in our elections.”
Though Mr. Lee’s support of the Trump campaign’s election challenge was short-lived, Mr. McMullin accuses Mr. Lee of treason. “Mike Lee conspired directly with the Trump administration to overturn the 2020 election and override the will of the American people,” Mr. McMullin recently tweeted.
Mr. McMullin’s effort to win in Utah faces steep challenges, particularly as he tries to court Democratic and independent voters while trying to appeal to disaffected Republicans.
Mr. McMullin voted for Mr. Biden in 2020, but he said it was not a commitment to support every presidential decision. “It’s a vote to defend the republic, take back our government from Vladimir Putin and Trump family corruption, restore decency, and the chance to advance unifying solutions for the country,” he said at the time.
Democrats have not won a statewide race in Utah since 1996. Mr. McMullin has had to shift his positions leftward since winning the party’s nod.
After the Supreme Court announced its ruling overturning Roe v. Wade on Friday, Mr. McMullin pledged his opposition to states that impose “extreme laws,” such as total bans on abortion, limits on birth control and “criminalization of women in desperate situations.”
Mr. Lee, a former Supreme Court clerk who is staunchly opposed to abortion, was unequivocal in his praise of the decision, which ends the federal legalization of abortion and gives states the authority to govern the legality of the procedure.
“The national nightmare of Roe has ended,” Mr. Lee said.
Mr. McMullin told The Times that he is running against Mr. Lee “because the extremes in our political parties, along with the powerful interests in Washington, have gained far too much influence in our politics.”
If elected, he said, he won’t caucus with either party, which could shut him out of committee membership. Mr. McMullin said Utah “needs independent leadership in the Senate.”
Republican voters outnumber Democratic voters in the state by a margin of nearly 4-to-1, but nearly 30% of all voters are unaffiliated with either party.
Mr. Trump remains popular among voters in Utah, but less so than in other red states.
A poll in May pitted Mr. Trump against Sen. Mitt Romney, a Utah Republican who has been one of the party’s most outspoken critics of the former president and who voted to convict him on impeachment charges in January 2021 after the riot at the Capitol.
The Deseret News and Hinckley Institute of Politics poll found that 51% of Utah voters believed Mr. Romney best represented their political and policy preferences, compared with 37% who picked Mr. Trump. Another 12% picked neither politician.
Mr. Romney did not endorse Mr. Lee in the primary, but Mr. Trump did.
Mr. Lee has remained mostly quiet about the stamp of approval from the former president, although he referenced him in a fundraising email this year.
“I am being attacked by my Never Trumper opponent and he is raising millions of dollars to STOP our Conservative campaign,” Mr. Lee pitched to donors.