OREM, Utah (AP) — Repelling attacks from his independent opponent, U.S. Sen. Mike Lee of Utah worked to differentiate himself from former President Donald Trump in a contentious debate Monday night.
“I have consistently stood up to my party to oppose reckless spending. I will do it again and again and again. We need people who say no,” said the second-term Republican.
Lee has repeatedly said his voting record shows he is not beholden to any party or politician. He twice told an audience at Utah Valley University that he voted less in line with Trump than all but two Republican senators — Rand Paul and Susan Collins.
“To claim that I am obliged to any side, that I was a licker of any side is nonsense. And that contradicts the plain facts,” Lee said.
Lee faces a challenge from Evan McMullin, a former Republican best known for his long-shot run for president six years ago, when he won 21.5% of the Utah vote as an independent, including Lee’s. McMullin has since become a pillar of the anti-Trump movement, attacking Trump as a threat to democracy and arguing that his actions are contrary to the history of the Republican Party and what is best for the United States.
Lee’s attempts to make a difference with Trump reflect an unusual dynamic emerging in Utah this election cycle. In a red state race, one candidate is running as an independent, and the other is trying to emphasize his independent streak.
The race is shaping up to be one of the nation’s many referendums on the direction Trump has taken toward the GOP. McMullin is trying to capitalize on the anti-Trump sentiment that has set Utah apart from other Republican strongholds. Lee’s last-minute attempts to put distance between his voting record and Trump’s views diverge from his past messaging as Election Day nears.
“I don’t think he’s trying to distance himself from Trump. What I think he’s trying to do is draw that contrast. “Everybody says, ‘Oh, he’s a lap dog,'” Utah Republican Party Chairman Carson Jorgensen said. “No, he stood up for what he believed in every time, even when it came to Trump.”
Utah is reliably Republican, but its religion-infused politics is idiosyncratic. Most residents belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which values behavior highly and avoids alcohol and profanity. Members of the faith lean Republican, but polls have shown Trump has less support among them than other prominent GOP politicians.
Trump failed to win the support of a majority of Utah voters in 2016, and Joe Biden performed better with Utah voters in 2020 than any Democrat since 1964.
Lee’s emphasis on his willingness to distance himself from Trump comes as McMullin tries to paint him as one of the former president’s most loyal disciples. McMullin recently released an attack ad based on Lee’s 2020 remarks comparing Trump to Captain Moroni, a biblical hero in the Book of Mormon.
Monday’s debate was McMullin’s first move to directly confront Lee about the text messages he sent to Trump’s chief of staff Mark Meadows ahead of the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol, which he has made a centerpiece of his campaign.
The texts show Lee seeking advice on how to contribute to efforts to challenge the 2020 election result. Lee defended his actions by saying he only intended to investigate legal arguments and rumors that swing states had released fraudulent voter lists, noting that he ended up voting to confirm the results.
On Monday, Lee demanded an apology from McMullin and said his version of events showed a “cavalier, reckless disregard for the truth”.
While the messages suggest Lee was investigating the legality of alternative electoral lists ahead of January 6, Lee said they showed no evidence that he would support such a scheme. He said that he would not even mention that he voted for the certification of the election results.
A raucous crowd made up mostly of Lee supporters jeered and booed when McMullin called Lee’s actions “pavesty.”
“Senator Lee, it was the most egregious betrayal of our nation’s constitution in its history by an American senator. I believe that will be your legacy,” McMullin said, wagging a finger at Lee.