The Utah Senate Race: Mike Lee vs. Evan McMullin


U.S. Senator Mike Lee of Utah speaking at the 2016 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. (Photo by Gage Skidmore | Courtesy Flickr)

By Stevie Shaughnessey, Home Stretch Producer, Host


On Nov. 8, the Senate election will be held with 34 of the 100 seats up for grabs this year. Utah Sen. Mike Lee, who has been in office since 2011, is running against Evan McMullin.

McMullin is a former undercover CIA officer and chief policy director for Congress who ran for president in 2016 as an independent. He’s running as an independent in the Senate race.

In recent months, McMullin has been gaining traction in his Senate race against Lee, according to Insider. McMullin has also received the support and backing of Utah’s Democratic party for the November election.

Donald Trump’s Influence On the Election

Many Democrats in the state of Utah, including Mayor Jenny Wilson of Salt Lake County, have chosen to endorse and support McMullin in his race against Lee this fall.

James Curry, an associate professor of political science at the University of Utah, said that the support McMullin is receiving this year is largely due to many Utahns disliking Donald Trump.

“Utah, as you probably know, is sort of not a typical Republican state, in the sense that it’s a Republican state for the last couple of election cycles that hasn’t been as enthusiastic about Trump as other, very Republican states,” Curry said.

Lee was the Utah co-chairman of the reelection effort of former President Trump in 2020. Trump received 58.2% of Utah’s vote, according to Politico.

Lee’s endorsement of Trump is one of the reasons McMullin is currently receiving support, said Matthew Burbank, a political science professor at the U.

“Part of what you see, with Lee running as an incumbent, is that one of the things that’s hanging over his race at the moment is how people feel about Trump,” Burbank said. “But there are a lot of Republicans in this state who were never all that comfortable supporting Trump.”

Curry said he thinks the reason Lee’s current ratings are less than those of other Republican officials is because of his affiliation with Trump.

“His approval is well below Mitt Romney and Spencer Cox,” Curry said. “That means it opens the door for somebody who can coalesce some support of some Republican voters in the state who don’t like Trump and therefore don’t like Lee.”

Kelsey Koenen Witt, the McMullin for Utah communications director, said in an email interview that McMullin is gaining momentum in his campaign against Lee, with people from all political backgrounds joining his coalition.

“A majority of Utahns want to replace Lee, and if principled Republicans, Democrats and Independents unite on areas of common ground, we will send a true independent to Washington to fight for us,” Witt said.

Time will Tell

Lee and McMullin are locked in a competitive race, according to the latest Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll, with Lee receiving 41% of voter support and McMullin receiving 36%. A recent poll from the centrist Center Street PAC shows Lee leading McMullin 50% to 36% among likely voters.

According to Curry, while McMullin is currently receiving a large amount of support from Utah voters, this excitement may not last until election time.

“I think he’s kind of in the same position as a lot of Independent candidates where they’re very sort of exciting initially,” Curry said. “But what happens is they tend to poll best in the summer before the election, and they tend to fade as the fall goes on, as voters sort of come back home to the party that they typically vote for.”

One of the big struggles McMullin now has to tackle is gaining the name recognition that other officials have, said Burbank, with the added challenge of having no party affiliation.

“Now, the difficulty, of course, is that one of the things he still needs to do is he still needs to introduce himself to lots of Republican voters who probably may have been aware of him but didn’t pay close attention,” Burbank said.

According to Witt, McMullin understands the hardships that come with running as an Independent but is doing so as a pledge to honor the wishes of Utahns without a party influencing his decisions.

“In a divided Senate, Evan’s independence from the party bosses and special interests will give Utahns a bigger voice on critical issues,” Witt said. 

While Lee might have the advantage over McMullin, said Burbank, the election is several months away, and there is plenty of time for public opinion to be swayed. 

“It’s a long time until November,” Burbank said.


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