And while Utah is also deeply conservative, it has some unorthodox tendencies. Most Utahns, McMullin included, are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a group that has shown an unusual aversion to Trump (hence McMullin’s success in 2016). As an ex-Republican, McMullin offers himself as a principled alternative to Lee, whom he views as a far-right extremist tied to a former president who tried to overthrow the government.
“The only way to replace [Lee] is to build a coalition,” McMullin says. “We’re still bringing people together.”
If his motley lot can swing the election, McMullin figures, perhaps it could serve as a template for other races around the country to take on the far right or the far left.
So far, his backers run the gamut. They include national figures from both parties, like former DNC Chair Howard Dean and former RNC Chair Michael Steele. More important, he’s pocketed prominent local endorsements, including Jenny Wilson, the mayor of Salt Lake County and the state’s highest-ranking Democrat. Ben McAdams, a former Democratic congressman, who thought about running against Lee but saw it as an unwinnable race for his party, is serving as McMullin’s liaison to Utah Democrats.
An eyebrow-raising non-endorsement comes from Utah GOP Sen. Mitt Romney, who views both McMullin and Lee as “friends” and so will stay out of the race. Still, it’s rare for a senator not to endorse a home-state colleague from the same party, and McMullin counts the neutrality as a win. “I respect that and appreciate it very much,” he quips.
If McMullin sees his campaign as a tale of strange bedfellows, he doesn’t let on. To him, it’s a democratic do-or-die moment. Lee has betrayed Utah voters, he says. “Mike Lee’s politics lead to nothing,” he says. “What have they led to for Utah — an embarrassment every other week?”
McMullin’s laundry list of his opponent’s betrayals is long: Lee went from Trump critic to loyalist; Lee is more of an obstructionist than a legislator; Lee advised efforts to overturn the 2020 election. It’s the last point that gets McMullin animated. “We now know, despite his lies to the contrary, that Sen. Lee was very involved in the plot to identify fake electors from swing states to overturn our democracy,” McMullin says, referring to a series of texts between Lee and former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows which the Jan. 6 committee released earlier this year. The texts appear to contradict Lee’s previous statements about his opposition to Trump’s effort to overturn the 2020 election, though Lee’s office rejects that characterization.