Skip to content

The Democratic message from Utah — of all places

It may have looked like surrender, but backing Evan McMullin was shrewd

In the battle for democracy, you take your allies where you can find them, writes Shapiro. Above, independent candidate Evan McMullin waits to speak to supporters at an election night party on Nov. 8, 2016 in Salt Lake City, Utah.
In the battle for democracy, you take your allies where you can find them, writes Shapiro. Above, independent candidate Evan McMullin waits to speak to supporters at an election night party on Nov. 8, 2016 in Salt Lake City, Utah. (George Frey/Getty Images))

The most intriguing political development in recent weeks had nothing to do with inflation, Ukraine, the pandemic, border control or redistricting. And it did not take place in Washington or in a hotly contested swing state like Georgia or Arizona. 

Instead, the venue was Cottonwood High School in Murray, Utah, a suburb of Salt Lake City. And the event was the Democratic convention in a state that routinely elects Republican senators by a better than 2-to-1 margin. 

At the hotly contested convention, Utah Democrats opted by a 782-to-594 vote not to endorse their own candidate for the Senate seat held by embattled right-winger Mike Lee. Instead, Utah Democrats endorsed the independent candidacy of Evan McMullin, a former CIA agent who ran as a never-Trump Republican protest candidate in the 2016 presidential election.

At first glance, this looks like a gesture of abject surrender by a Democratic Party that last elected a Utah senator in 1970. But, in truth, this shrewd decision can serve as a model for a big-tent crusade to preserve democracy during this time of deep fissures in our republic. 

Even though McMullin embraces good-government causes like ensuring voting rights, he is anything but a cookie-cutter Democrat. 

His views on abortion are at best murky: “Some identify as pro-choice and others as pro-life, but no one I know is pro-abortion or in favor of hurting women and children.” And in an era when Democrats have abandoned the politics of austerity, McMullin emphasizes “passing balanced budget legislation.”  

But ideological checklists aren’t the point. The underlying message in the Utah Democrats’ endorsement of McMullin is the same one that has animated the Jan. 6 committee in the House: In the battle against the forces out to nullify free elections, you take your allies where you can find them without worrying about litmus tests. 

Mike Lee is a prime symbol of the transformation of the Republican Party under the sway of Donald Trump. An outspoken foe of Trump’s nomination in 2016, Lee called for the reality show star to quit the presidential race after the “Access Hollywood” tape of sexual braggadocio surfaced a month before the election. 

Then came the U-turn. By early December 2020, Lee was playing a lead role in the efforts to overturn Joe Biden’s legally valid election. 

CNN recently obtained a series of text messages that Lee sent to Mark Meadows, Trump’s chief of staff, during the post-election plotting. On Dec. 8, for example, Lee wrote, “If a very small handful of states were to have their legislatures appoint alternative slates of delegates, there could be a path.” Days before the Jan. 6 vote to formally ratify Biden’s election, Lee texted Meadows, “I’ve been calling state legislators for hours today, and am going to spend hours doing the same tomorrow.”

Lee is a relatively weak incumbent in a Republican state, with a 44 percent approval rating. Although he won over 70 percent of the vote at the state Republican convention last weekend and has more than earned his endorsement by Trump, Lee still has to survive a June 28 GOP primary against two credible opponents. 

Utah has never been a Trump state. Not only is the other senator Mitt Romney (the only Republican to vote to remove Trump from office after his 2020 impeachment trial over Ukraine), but McMullin himself received 22 percent of the presidential vote in the state in 2016. 

Still, the road ahead for McMullin is daunting. A Democratic candidate might have siphoned off, say, 15 percent of the vote in a three-way Senate race. But are there enough independent-minded Republicans in the state willing to buck their party and Trump to vote for an independent Senate candidate with Democratic support? 

Like so much about the 2022 elections, there is no definitive answer at this early stage. There has been no polling in the state since CNN revealed Lee’s text messages and the Democrats joined forces with McMullin. Who knows, for example, whether Lee’s image will be further rocked by the televised June hearings of the Jan. 6 committee?

While the French have a far different political system and there are always risks in seeing transnational trends, the 17-point victory of Emmanuel Macron illustrates the power of coalition politics. Many on the left voted for Macron solely out of fear of the implications of electing right-wing nationalist Marine Le Pen.

The same possibility of a coalition for democracy exists in Wyoming where Liz Cheney — the embodiment of anti-Trump conservatism — faces a brutal August 16 primary to hold her House seat. Under Wyoming election laws, Democrats could declare themselves as “Republicans for a day” to vote to support Cheney. In a close election, these temporary converts might decide the outcome.

Even if McMullin and Cheney go down to defeat, the strategy behind Democratic involvement in both these races is sound. In one-party Republican states, the best possible approach is to make common cause with conservatives and moderates who uphold democratic values and reject Trump’s destructive fantasies about a stolen election. 

The worrisome aspect about the 2022 elections is that too many on the left will stay home out of disappointment that Biden’s election didn’t instantly create nirvana on the Potomac. But, in a bitterly divided nation, politics should be about what is possible rather than what is theoretically perfect. 

That’s why someday, when the Trumpian nightmare is history, they will hang a plaque for pragmatism on the walls of Cottonwood High School in Murray, Utah.

Walter Shapiro has covered the last 11 presidential campaigns. He is also a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.

Recent Stories

Senate sends surveillance reauthorization bill to Biden’s desk

Five races to watch in Pennsylvania primaries on Tuesday

‘You talk too much’— Congressional Hits and Misses

Senators seek changes to spy program reauthorization bill

Editor’s Note: Congress and the coalition-curious

Photos of the week ending April 19, 2024