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Rick Bowmer/AP Photo Evan McMullin
A former undercover CIA officer who later worked as chief policy director for the House Republican Conference on Capitol Hill, Evan McMullin was an entrenched Republican. But when Donald Trump won the Republican nomination for president in 2016, McMullin left the party and forged a last-minute presidential bid as an independent. He didn't even win his home state of Utah, but he knew from talking to voters that many were discouraged by the political climate too.
"People are sick of the divisiveness," McMullin, 46, tells PEOPLE. "We've got mounting challenges in Utah — inflation is worse here than almost anywhere else, air quality is a real challenge especially during the summer, we're running out of water in an historic drought, we've got high cost of health care and on and on. Politics of division and extremism just don't solve them, and people are tired of it."
Two-term Republican incumbent Sen. Mike Lee, 51, was coming up for reelection. Lee participated in Trump's 2020 election scheming, believing that even after all the votes were counted there was still a way for Trump to win. McMullin thought it was time for him to go.
Lee has reliably cast far-right votes since entering the Senate in 2011, leaving moderately conservative voters like McMullin as well as left-leaning constituents without a voice, McMullin says.
Figuring he couldn't beat the two-term incumbent in a Republican primary, and he couldn't beat Lee as a Democrat — Utah Democrats haven't won a Senate race in the state in 52 years — he launched an independent campaign for Senate.
The problem: Utah votes Republican. At least in the past few decades. To succeed as an independent, he'd have to break allegiances and win over voters from all sides.
Campaign events have included people he calls "principled Republicans," as well as Democrats, members of the United Utah Party and other small parties. And, of course, independents. "It's totally unheard of in American politics," McMullin says. "We're building a coalition of Utahns who have not been well represented in Utah or national politics for decades."
"We listen to each other. That's what's happening here that I don't think is happening anywhere else in the country, but it needs to. Our country will not survive if we don't build a new, sustainable coalition to defend our democracy. Even if it is Pollyannish, it's what we have to do," he says.
It may be novel in today's political climate to cater to the middle, but in reality, "It's an old politics we've left behind," says Hillary Stirling, chair of the moderate United Utah Party. "The national parties gave up on (moderate voters) a long time ago. They've decided they win by going to these extremes, and as a result the middle has been left behind."
Other independent senators, such as Bernie Sanders, caucus with a major party. McMullin says he's committed to remaining independent and does not plan to caucus with Republicans or Democrats in the Senate. While some Republicans say that means he won't be given committee assignments, he says it's a guarantee, and, in fact, his participation will be courted because his vote can't be taken for granted.
McMullin's promise to Utahns
The independent candidate sees his non-affiliation as an advantage for Utah residents. "I want us to have a greater voice in the Senate," McMullin says. While most senators vote on legislation along party lines, he sees himself making up his own mind on issues and perhaps casting the deciding vote. "That will give us a tremendous amount of influence. That's the point," he says.
If he wins, McMullin is not worried about working without natural allies in the Senate. "I'll have more allies than most senators have because I'll have more flexibility to work across party lines."
Rick Bowmer/AP Photo Evan McMullin
But seeking to please conservatives, moderates and liberals is no easy task. "It doesn't mean there aren't tough conversations. We don't agree on everything, and that's okay," McMullin says. He looks for moderate solutions that most people support. He says, for example, he's a gun owner who believes in "sensible reform." People can enjoy their Second Amendment right and laws can protect against gun violence. "It's not an either-or," he says.
Abortion is another hot-button topic where the right and the left seem to be in polar disagreement, but, McMullin says, most people favor a solution somewhere in the middle. "There's a growing majority that want a more sensible way forward on this issue. That aren't supporting the extremes passing bills around the country that would force a 10-year-old girl who has been raped by her uncle to carry that pregnancy to term. Who don't want to criminalize women, ban contraception, who don't want to turn Americans against each other."
He says not everyone agrees on the answer, but "we agree on standing up to the extremes." He posits that making contraception more available and doing more to support women and children would have the effect of declining abortions.
Being an independent senator will also allow him to vote impartially on federal and Supreme Court nominees. He says he'll vote for nominees who are qualified for the job and are "impartially committed to upholding the law and our most basic rights," no matter what their party affiliation.
Other votes on the floor can be equally untethered from partisan politics. While most senators vote along party lines, "I don't want to answer to party bosses," he says. "I want to answer to those who elected me." And since he's not accepting money from Political Action Committees, he won't be beholden to special interests either.
"Now we have a competitive U.S. Senate race and the possibility to elect somebody who can be a problem solver," says former Utah Rep. Ben McAdams, a Democrat.
"As a former member of Congress myself, I've seen up close how broken it is in Washington. Sending an independent to Washington is a bold move that I think our country needs."
An unusual challenger arises
Many Democrats aren't perfectly aligned with McMullin's more conservative outlook, but they are supporting him because they think it's important to defeat Lee, McAdams says. "Democrats are saying 'Evan's not the perfect candidate for me but he'll respect our democracy and respect our elections.'"
As for conservative Utah voters — 52 percent of active voters in the state are registered Republican — Lee seems to be losing his grip. Lee's willingness to participate in Donald Trump's efforts to overturn the 2020 election, and his remark at a Trump campaign event in Arizona that Mormons should think of Trump as Captain Moroni, are unforgivable to some. Moroni is a beloved military leader in Book of Mormon who led a fight for liberty and freedom. Religious Utahns who had looked the other way on Trump's moral and ethical shortcomings because they liked his conservative policies found Lee's comments outrageous.
"He seeks not power but to pull it down, he seeks not the praise of the world…" Lee told the crowd. Backlash ensued, and Lee finally responded, "In no way did I suggest that people should seek to emulate President Trump in the same way they might pattern their lives after Captain Moroni." Yet two challengers ran against Lee in the Republican primary this year — as opposed to his last election when none did — and almost four in 10 voters didn't back Lee.
Furthermore, Lee has been an obstructionist, voting "nay" more times than not. "I want to know what you're going to do to fix it, not who you're going to blame," says McAdams.
Uncredited/AP/Shutterstock Sen. Mike Lee at Trump's second impeachment trial, in which he voted to acquit
Fifty-eight percent of Utah voters backed Trump in the 2020 election, but many can't stomach what Trump did after the election in an attempt to preserve his power. And nearly 250,000 Utah voters already turned away from the far right when they supported McMullin's presidential bid in 2016. McMullin's campaign sees this as an opening.
"Not everybody agrees on everything, but there's far more that unites us, that matters more at this point in our country's and our state's history. It's a commitment to our free and fair elections, it's a commitment to democracy, and more generally a commitment to our Constitution. These are the things that are most under threat right now," McMullin says.
"We are at a real crossroads in American history when we have to get back to basics. This coalition is defending what matters most in America and without that we won't solve any other problems in our country," he asserts.
Democrats take a chance
Four months before announcing his candidacy last year, he married Emily Norton, a widow who has five young children. But McMullin seems to live on overdrive. Convincing the Democratic Party not to run their own candidate but to back him instead required meetings, mailings, ads and tireless campaigning.
A few prominent Democrats got behind the idea, telling party delegates, "This is a case where we need to put country over party," according to Thom DeSirant, executive director of the Utah Democratic Party.
"It's important that Democrats run candidates in every race even if the numbers aren't in our favor. But their argument was that this isn't an ordinary race or an ordinary year," DeSirant says. "Mike Lee was complicit in the attempt to overturn the 2020 election. It really concerns me. The fact that we have the senior senator from our state pleading with the White House, saying, 'Tell me what to say, tell me what I can do to help,' after the ballots are in and we know that he's lost, that is deeply concerning just for the future of our country."
"I can't imagine a world where this would ever happen again," DeSirant says of the Democratic Party's decision to rally behind McMullin. "I disagree with a lot of Evan McMullin policies. The fact is Evan McMullin is not a Democrat, he's not someone who checks off all those boxes. It's sad that the bar is so low that we have to just say, 'Yes, this person isn't going to try to overthrow a fair election so we need to support them.'"
"The far-right extremists like Mike Lee have completely shifted the conversation away from actual policy to core basics of 'Will this person try to end the United States as we know it?'" he adds.
Party delegates voted in April and decided not to run a candidate. This was a chance for Democrats "to make ourselves relevant in an election where we haven't been in my lifetime," Rep. McAdams says. Some delegates were aghast. A hopeful candidate had to back down. A handful left the party in protest.
But the idea of an independent candidate struck a chord with centrists, and others joined the coalition. "Utah has a very strong individual streak, which is something that's pretty common in the Mountain West region and in Utah, we kind of turn it up to 11," DeSirant says. "People say they're unaffiliated. They'll say, 'I vote for the person, not the party.' They like to have their independence." Many of those voters appreciate an independent candidate, even if his views don't perfectly match up with theirs.
"Every generation or two there is a realignment in American politics," McMullin says. "And we need that right now to stand up to those who threaten our democracy. None of those groups — principled Republicans, independents or Democrats — have the votes alone to protect the American Republic. They just don't. So we have to come together. Only if those groups unite is it possible to replace Mike Lee."
No one was expecting a competitive Senate race in Utah this year. The state "has not seen a Senate race this competitive in decades," says Jason Perry, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah. The latest poll shows McMullin closing in, still trailing Lee by five points but with a polling margin of error of 3.46 points and 8% of voters as yet undecided.
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Utah Republicans have been winning by more than 30 points since the mid-1990s, Perry says, but the fact that the Democrats didn't run a candidate makes this a unique contest. "It is a close race and will continue to be a close race all the way until November," he says.