OREM, Utah (AP) – Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee and his independent challenger Evan McMullin are scheduled to face off Monday night in a televised debate three weeks before Election Day.
Although Utah is a deeply conservative state that Republicans have represented in the U.S. Senate since 1976, the race has become surprisingly competitive, with both candidates bombarding the airwaves and mailboxes with attack ads and campaigning aggressively across the state.
Lee, a second-term Republican, has represented Utah since ousting the establishment Republican in the 2010 Tea Party wave. Although he initially denounced Donald Trump’s rhetoric and hardline views on immigration and refugees, during the former president’s tenure, he eventually emerged as one of his most loyal allies.
Given Lee’s trajectory, many observers see the race as a referendum on the direction Trump is taking the Republican Party. It will reflect whether Republicans continue to hold voters in Utah, a state where most voters are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The survey has shown Trump fared worse than other Republicans with members of the faith, which values manners and avoids alcohol and profanity.
McMullin is a former CIA agent and House Republican who defected and ran for president as an independent in 2016, winning more than one in five votes in Utah. He hopes to channel the state’s moderate reputation and anti-Trump sentiment. He successfully convinced the state Democratic Party not to nominate a candidate earlier this year, hoping to assemble a coalition of Democrats, independents and disaffected Republicans to oust Lee.
McMullin’s campaign focused largely on portraying Lee as a threat to democracy, emphasizing text messages sent to Trump’s chief of staff Mark Meadows ahead of the attack on the US Capitol on January 6, 2021. The texts show Lee seeking advice on how to contribute to efforts to challenge the election result. Lee defended his actions, saying he only intended to examine the legal arguments and noting that he ultimately voted to uphold the results.
Lee’s campaign message highlighted his record of voting in line with his principles, even when he can be unpopular or threaten to shut down the government. He attacked McMullin for failing to take a stand on key midterm issues — including abortion and infrastructure spending — and argued that a vote for him could deny Republicans a majority and sway the Senate for Democrats.
Lee remains extremely popular among the Republican base, giving him a “rock star reception” at the party convention in April, according to The Salt Lake Tribune.
Although Utah has been behind the polls in past cycles, this year’s Senate race has drawn national attention. Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang campaigned for McMullin in Salt Lake City last week, and Republican Congressman Adam Kinzinger is scheduled to join him Thursday in Salt Lake City. Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso and Rep. Chip Roy traveled to Utah to support Lee last week. The right-leaning political action committee Club for Growth poured millions into ads in support of Lee.
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