Republican Sen. Mike Lee Fends Off Independent Challenge To Third Term

Evan McMullin put together a coalition including independents, Democrats and even some Republicans, but could not overcome Lee’s advantages.

Utah Republican Mike Lee is projected to win a third term in the U.S. Senate, fending off an unprecedented challenge from an independent who made the election a referendum on Lee’s support for former President Donald Trump’s attempt to overturn the 2020 election.

Independent Evan McMullin, the former Republican who left the party in 2016 after it nominated Trump, assembled a coalition including the state Democratic party. The result was the strongest non-Republican Senate campaign in a half-century, which ultimately fell short.

McMullin gave his concession speech with over half the vote counted and Lee holding a 90,000-vote lead. He repeated his warning that the country is still in danger. “America stands at the crossroads of democracy and despotism,” he told his supporters.

Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee faced a challenge from Evan McMullin, an independent.
Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee faced a challenge from Evan McMullin, an independent.
Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

Lee had never really faced a general election test in Utah, which has not elected a Democrat to the Senate in 50 years. Lee won his 2010 race by 29 points after defeating incumbent Republican Bob Bennett in the state party convention, and won his 2016 reelection by 41 percentage points.

McMullin, who ran for president as an independent in 2016 with the goal of keeping keep Trump out of the White House, was able to pull together the various groups in Utah that have become disenchanted with Lee. Many, including virtually all Democrats and even some Republicans, were offended by Lee’s participation in Trump’s “fake elector” scheme to have his supporters in states won by Democrat Joe Biden send slates of electors to the National Archives anyway as a way to pressure then-Vice President Mike Pence into declaring Trump the winner.

Others said they were tired of Lee’s habit of voting “no” on virtually everything, including legislation with broad bipartisan support such as the infrastructure bill, a measure helping veterans exposed to toxic burn pits, imposing sanctions on Russia and providing military assistance to Ukraine.

McMullin was an officer in the CIA’s clandestine service prior to working as a staffer for House Republicans. His presidential run drew a quarter-million votes in Utah ― including that of Lee, who at the time was a “never-Trump” Republican ― and served as a template for the Senate run he began a year ago.

He persuaded Utah Democrats not to nominate a candidate of their own and instead to throw their support to him.

That move appeared to give McMullin a real chance of winning, with some polls showing a single-digit race into October.

The closeness of the race led to conservative groups like Club for Growth and an affiliated “Crypto Freedom PAC” to flood Utah with television advertising attacking McMullin as a closet Democrat who would vote the way Biden and congressional Democrats told him to.

And while McMullin had a supportive super PAC of his own and had been competitive with Lee in his fundraising this year, he was outspent on the air in the final stretch when many voters start paying attention to the race.

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