The Unique Utah Senate Race

At the beginning of the 2022 election cycle, it appeared the universe of targeted Senate races wouldn’t change a great deal.

From the 2022 in-cycle races, it appeared that only eleven would be seriously targeted by one party or the other, and that list wouldn’t change throughout the campaign period. Now, we are seeing a 12th race become firmly implanted.

A new Dan Jones & Associates poll for the Utah Deseret News and the Hinckley Institute of Politics (10/3-6; 801 UT registered voters; live interview) shows two-term incumbent Utah Sen. Mike Lee (R) topping Independent Evan McMullin by only low single digits. It is the third in the last four published statewide polls to reveal a small spread between the two candidates. The Dan Jones ballot test gives the Senator only a 41-37% preference edge, with two minor party candidates attracting a combined three percent.

At the beginning of the election cycle, certain members of the Utah Democratic Party leadership suggested to the party authorities that they file no candidate in the Senate race and instead coalesce behind Independent McMullin. Though Mr. McMullin is more conservative than the average Democratic Party leader and voter, he would be someone, they believed, who could give Sen. Lee a race if he had a clean opportunity.

The theory was that Sen. Lee was unstoppable in a three-way race, and the only chance, even slim though it might be, for Democrats to have a hand in unseating him would be to isolate the Senator in a one-on-one race. The party leaders were able to convince the majority of the Utah Democratic Party delegates in the April endorsing convention to vote for a “no candidate” option, and thus develop at least an informal support coalition with Mr. McMullin.

In 2016, Evan McMullin ran as an Independent for President. Though he fared as well as any typical Independent candidate in the national race (0.53% of the vote), he only qualified for the ballot in 11 states. He did, however, receive write-in ballots from an additional 31 states, and ended the election with over 732,000 votes.

His home state of Utah, however, proved a different story. Here, he held then-candidate Donald Trump to only a 46% victory, while Hillary Clinton was reduced to 27% of the vote. For his part, Mr. McMullin attracted 21.5%, finishing a strong third. It is from this base that he has enough credibility as a sole Independent candidate to be a factor against Sen. Lee.

The polling so far proves that the Democrats’ coalition strategy is working. Whether McMullin can win the race still appears at least slightly beyond his reach, however, because he has several problems that will make it difficult to keep his unique, but fragile, coalition together.

First, Sen. Lee will pressure him to announce with which party he will caucus if he wins the election. As a former policy director for the House Republican Conference, he would probably be inclined to join the GOP caucus. Announcing such a decision, however, would likely cost him most of his Democratic votes. 

Saying he would caucus with the Democrats would allow Sen. Lee to then paint him into the liberal corner, a political death sentence in conservative Utah. Finally, if he weren’t to caucus with either party, he would find himself void of committee assignments, which would make it difficult for him to deliver anything back to this home state.

Second, the more Lee is able to draw McMullin out on issue positions, the Independent will then see current hodge-podge of diverse ideological supporters begin to peel off.

Third, he is not likely to receive any late outside support coming from the Democratic or left-of-center Super PACs because the ideological organizations won’t trust Mr. McMullin as a philosophical ally.

Fourth, Sen. Lee has already had outside organizations come into the state on his behalf, including a multi-million-dollar expenditure from the Club for Growth. Though the Club ads have been flawed and McMullin has gained coverage for challenging them, he will still lack the major outside resources to deflect what Lee and his GOP allies will bring to the campaign during the final weeks.

At this point, the Dan Jones poll finds Sen. Lee attracting only 60% of the Republican vote, with 26% going to Mr. McMullin. The latter man attracts 68% of the Democratic Party support, while the unaffiliated voters are breaking 40-30% in Mr. McMullin’s favor. Self-described “moderates” favor McMullin, 42-17%. In the all-important Utah Mormon vote, Sen. Lee leads 57-29%.

As the race gets more clearly defined in these final four weeks, we will likely see the percentage divisions break more in Sen. Lee’s favor, especially among Republicans. Though Mr. McMullin’s independent/Democratic coalition is doing better than most originally believed, the end result is still likely to favor Sen. Lee winning the November election with a comfortable margin.

* denotes the candidate has received an AGC PAC contribution during the 2021-2022 election cycle. 

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