Trump critic Kinzinger wades into Utah Senate race against Lee

GOP member of Jan. 6 panel joins independent challenger Evan McMullin

From left, independent Utah Senate candidate Evan McMullin and Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., on stage at a discussion about democracy and the future of the American political system at the Salt Lake City Public Library on Thursday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
From left, independent Utah Senate candidate Evan McMullin and Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., on stage at a discussion about democracy and the future of the American political system at the Salt Lake City Public Library on Thursday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted October 21, 2022 at 6:33am

SALT LAKE CITY — Retiring Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois came to Utah on Thursday to make the case for electing the independent Senate candidate Evan McMullin over incumbent Republican Sen. Mike Lee.

Kinzinger was one of the two Republican House members (along with Wyoming’s Liz Cheney) to accept appointments from Speaker Nancy Pelosi to the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. That and his outspoken opposition to the actions of former President Donald Trump, including voting to impeach Trump in January 2021, made Kinzinger an outcast within the House Republican Conference.

“People sometimes come up to me and say, like, ‘Adam, you’re courageous in what you’re doing,’ and I appreciate people saying that. It’s not true, though,” Kinzinger said at an event supporting McMullin. “I’m surrounded by cowards.”

Kinzinger later said he sees the contest between Lee and McMullin — Utah Democrats endorsed McMullin instead of nominating a candidate of their own — as an important test.

“This is the best opportunity I see in the country, and I mean that, to send a message, to build something new, to send somebody that can change the status quo,” Kinzinger said when asked after the event at the Salt Lake City Public Library. McMullin, the former long-shot presidential candidate and former undercover CIA officer, appeared onstage alongside Kinzinger in front of an overflow crowd well into the hundreds.

As indicated by the people seen already depositing ballots in a drop box outside the library, Utahns are already voting in a state where a targeted Senate race is highly unusual. Lee won his current term in 2016 by 41 points but recently lamented on Fox News that fellow Republican Sen. Mitt Romney, who voted to convict Trump in his 2021 impeachment trial, has not endorsed him. One recent survey from the Deseret News and the Hinckley Institute found Lee ahead by just 4 points, although others have found the incumbent with a more substantial lead.

From left, Utah independent Senate candidate Evan McMullin and Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., hold a press conference after a "democracy forum" at the Salt Lake City Public Library on Thursday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Lee, who is seeking a third term, debated McMullin on Monday night. As was the case that night, much of the focus Thursday was on Lee’s actions in the run-up to the January 2021 insurrection.

Lee voted against challenges to the 2020 presidential election results during the counting of Electoral College ballots on Jan. 6, but he has faced criticism for text messages he exchanged with former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows. The texts were revealed by the Jan. 6 select committee, on which Kinzinger serves. Lee has denied that he would ever support a plot to designate fake electors.

“We don’t use the Constitution as a prop,” Kinzinger said. “We don’t hold it in our pocket one day and then go and violate it the next day.”

The Lee campaign provided a statement to local media, including the Deseret News, stating in part, “In the final days of a campaign candidates trailing in the polls make accusations that are designed to scare and divide.”

During the event, McMullin recalled a conversation with Kinzinger less than a week before Jan. 6.

“I was on the phone. I was in, like, a Walgreens or something. I was in a drugstore,” McMullin said. “And I remember you telling me, hey, this is going to be really bad on Jan. 6, and you warned me, there’s going to be violence.”

McMullin said he didn’t comprehend how bad the violence Kinzinger had predicted was going to be, that it would be a “last outburst.”

Kinzinger recalled his Jan. 6 experience for the crowd, including his time sheltering in place in his House office, thinking that he may need to take up arms to defend himself from the violent protesters.

The Country First PAC, which helped organize Thursday’s event, is the backbone of Kinzinger’s political activities. The group made a series of 2022 endorsements on Oct. 11, including McMullin and members of both the Democratic and Republican parties running in a variety of federal and state races.

“This was born organically after Jan. 6. I did a video where I just said the Republican Party is off the rails,” Kinzinger said Thursday. “Now we have over 200,000 members, over 6,000 volunteers. We’re getting involved in races, and it’s not about Republican or Democrat or independent.”

Thursday’s event in Utah had echoes of other Kinzinger appearances, including a February speech he gave to a group of anti-Trump conservatives at the National Press Club in Washington. On Thursday, Kinzinger revisited his criticism of how lies about the election and other themes continue to be used solely as fundraising tools that he called abuse.

“This is about aggressively calling out the abuse that’s happening to you. If you sign up for any political fundraising thing and you get all the ‘just send me $10 or your family’s going to die’ from this other thing … that is abusing you, that is taking seniors on Social Security and extracting their financial resources from them,” Kinzinger said.