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Don’t Bet the Farm on Utah’s Senate Election
Mike Lee remains an intensely popular Senator among both Trumpy and non-Trumpy Utahns alike.
In 2016, I took my first foray into party politics by accepting a nomination as a Salt Lake County delegate in the Republican Party. At the time, Utah was not Trump country in any meaningful way. Republican voters in Utah gave almost 70% of the vote to Ted Cruz, even after the race was effectively over. Heck, Kasich got more votes in Utah than Trump did in the 2016 primary. A distinct Never Trump (old school conservative Never Trump) vibe permeated the atmosphere when I attended the Salt Lake County convention. But there was also an unavoidable exuberance in support of Mike Lee, the most popular Republican in Utah. When he addressed the convention, his standing ovation was thunderous.
Six years later, a lot of things have changed. Last weekend, I attended the Utah State Republican Convention, and the script had flipped since my last major Republican gathering in Utah. Though Trump wasn’t actually brought up very much at all, you could still tell it was largely a pro-Trump, MAGA crowd. But one thing hadn’t changed. Mike Lee was still the belle of the ball. The ovation he received from the delegates when he made his case for re-election was still thunderous. He remains the most popular Republican in Utah.
Now, I’d be the first to argue that Mike Lee’s enduring popularity among Utah Republicans, even as the atmosphere has changed, does not necessarily reflect well on his decisions over time. His rhetoric on Trump, specifically, has whip-sawed enough to give anyone cause for concern. He was, after all, the Senator that went from calling on Trump to drop out of the race after the Access Hollywood tape in 2016 to comparing Trump to Latter-day Saint scriptural hero Captain Moroni while campaigning for him in Arizona in 2020.
But Mike Lee’s ill-advised attempts to ride the populist tiger notwithstanding, his popularity among Utah Republicans and his approval ratings over time have demonstrated tremendous consistency regardless of which side of Trump he’s chosen to fly. It’s true he’s gone from a Never Trump stalwart to “don’t ask me about Tweets, I have work to do” to full-on pandering to the MAGA crowd. But his political philosophy and his voting record have remained pretty dang consistent and far more in line with Senators like Ben Sasse than full-on Trump sycophants like Josh Hawley.
I don’t say this to endorse or excuse Senator Lee’s Trump-oriented rhetoric and decisions. I’m only pointing out that observers outside of Utah who smell blood when it comes to Mike Lee aren’t paying attention to realities on the ground. Utah voters, and especially Utah Republicans, like Mike Lee’s record regardless of his stance on Trump.
At this point, you’re probably saying, “What’s Justin talking about? Has he seen the polls?” But yes, I’m well aware of what the polls currently say and the talking points surrounding them. Opinion polling this year has shown Mike Lee’s approval rating hovering in the mid to low 40s (42% in February, 45% in April). Mike Lee’s opponents and detractors claim an approval rating this low for a two-term incumbent demonstrates unique weakness and a loss of trust among voters across the spectrum. They compare these numbers to Mitt Romney, who maintains majority approval among Utahns and is the only Senator to have majority approval among voters of both political parties.
But this is a very narrow reading of these poll results and ignores many factors inconvenient to such a narrative. Mike Lee’s poll numbers are far from abnormal. His approval rating is pretty middle-of-the-pack compared to other Senators. And his disapproval rating, 36%, is actually quite good (Meanwhile, Romney is the sixth most unpopular Senator and one of the most polarizing figures in Utah politics, with a disapproval rating of 43%). Mike Lee’s current polling numbers are also in sync with his figures leading up to the 2016 election when he had 45% percent approval and 37% disapproval in January of that year (he went on to win the general election that year with 68.2%).
“So, what,” some will say, “Lee’s challenger, Evan McMullin, isn’t a Democrat, and the contours of the race are now completely different. His Independent campaign has been cleared for a head-to-head challenge unlike anything Lee’s faced before.” But if we should be cautious of underestimating Mike Lee’s continued popularity in Utah, we should be extremely wary of assuming any kind of saliency for Evan McMullin in Utah.
As I mentioned earlier, Utah was the hotbed of Trump discontent in America. The factors on the ground here in 2016 couldn’t have been more perfect for the kind of campaign McMullin tried to run in 2016. I knocked doors for his presidential campaign, and let me tell you, I engaged with a receptive audience. But nobody knew who he was. And he couldn’t overcome the average Utah voter’s concerns with another Clinton in the White House. A state where 86% of Republicans had voted against Trump in the primary ended up only giving Evan McMullin 21% of the vote in the general election. He didn’t even manage to beat Hillary Clinton’s vote total.
Six years later, McMullin’s chances fare no better. A December poll indicates that 66% of Utahns may not even know who he is or at least don’t know enough about him to have formed an opinion. In a three-way race poll from March, McMullin only got 19% support to 43% for Lee. Even if McMullin pulls in the full 11% that had gone for the Democrat’s erstwhile challenger Kael Weston and gets half of the undecideds, that still puts him at a percentage point under Lee. And that would be an optimistic shift in the polls indeed!
Not all Democrats are pleased with their party’s decision to withdraw its candidate and endorse Evan McMullin. 43% of delegates at the Utah Democratic State convention voted against the controversial decision. Democratic party chairs in at least two counties have shared my own Salt Lake Tribune article where I question whether McMullin’s gamesmanship violates the spirit of Utah’s election laws. I have had several conversations with Utah Democratic Party insiders who voiced frustration and even anger over how things played out.
And we should also be careful to assume that the current undecideds would split evenly for the candidates. In 2010 and 2016, Lee’s Democratic opponents hauled in 32.8% and 27.1%, respectively, while Lee had 61.6% and 68.2% in those elections. Combining McMullin’s and Weston’s totals from the March poll, that would already put McMullin’s total vote share at 30% (this, again, assumes that all Utah Democrats fall in line). Meanwhile, Donald Trump in 2020 received 58.13% of the vote in Utah, which suggests a strong possibility that upwards of 15% of Utahns who disapprove of Mike Lee could very well be frustrated that he’s not more Trumpy. Donald Trump, after all, has spoken negatively of Mike Lee after he refused to join the effort to challenge the certification of 2020 electors (Trump has endorsed Mike Lee, but it seems a token gesture to get behind a winner, and Lee’s campaign has yet to make much mention of it in any of their efforts).
Finally, the issues that are important to the Utah electorate, the atmosphere of the 2022 political temperature, and the political narratives and party messages that have the momentum in the current election cycle all bank hard in Mike Lee’s favor and Evan McMullin’s detriment.
This is the first general election of the post-Trump era. Trump’s name isn’t on the ballot. Instead, Joe Biden is in the White House, and Utahns don’t like him. President Biden only has 34% approval in Utah, and a whopping 61% say they disapprove, leaving little room for daylight with only 5% undecided. Further, only 10% of Utahns strongly approve of Biden, while 49% strongly disapprove. If the messaging contest between McMullin and Lee is one where McMullin wants to talk about Trump and attempts to lay the sins of Trump and Trumpism at the feet of Mike Lee, while Lee talks about Biden and what he’s going to do to oppose his agenda, it seems pretty apparent which message is going to resonate with Utahns. Obtaining the endorsement of the Utah Democratic Party all but guaranteed that 49% of Utahns won’t touch McMullin with a ten-foot Cougar Tail.
Historical trends of both turnout and vote share fare quite well for members of the opposition in a mid-term election, especially for incumbents. This mid-term is shaping up to be even worse than usual for the President’s party. RCP’s Generic Congressional Vote shows a flip from +6.7 Democrat last July to currently +3.8 Republican (It was only +1.1 for Republicans at this time in 2010, before that year’s historic “shellacking” that gained Republicans 63 seats in the House). Pollsters are also measuring sizable shifts in Republican identification, signaling a possible homecoming for Americans driven from the party in the Trump years as well as a desire to identify with the opposition party in an atmosphere where President Biden’s approval numbers remain mired in the upper 30s.
And lastly, there is simply the prudential reality that a candidate who promises not to caucus with either party if elected to the Senate has seriously undermined his potential effectiveness there. This would rob Utah of a Senator who can vote for leadership positions. It could quite possibly deny Utah a Senator who could sit on committees (party leadership metes out committee assignments).
Without the support of any party’s fundraising operations, it’s safe to say McMullin would spend far more time fundraising than a typical Senator. Arguably, McMullin would be far more susceptible to lobbyist concerns since he would stand alone in his effectiveness and wouldn’t have access to a party’s deep pockets and systems of support. The fact of the matter is, either McMullin is lying to avoid further insinuation of being a Democrat and will swiftly alter the terms of the deal when in office so he could actually be an effective Senator, or he’s offering Utah the proposition of having a ham-handed Senate delegation for six years.
The realities of politics in Utah are quite different than what many of McMullin’s supporters on the national scene assume it is. Mike Lee is not a vulnerable Senator but is quite entrenched in Utah politics. While he’s traveled farther down the Trumpy rabbit hole than many Utahns would like, he falls decidedly short of what most Utahns would call a Trumpist, and, in fact, some Utahns feel he hasn’t been Trumpy enough. Based on his historical approval ratings, he’s on course for re-election by similar margins to 2016. Given the political atmosphere in Utah and nationally, he may even extend those returns.
The hard, stubborn facts of this race are that it does not fit the narratives that many are trying to thrust upon it. The race is not reflective of some kind of pro-Trump vs. Anti-Trump showdown. The more McMullin tries to make it so, the more the advantage goes to Lee. Utah’s political culture is not fertile ground for a Never Trump vendetta or for hunting scalps. Perhaps more than any other state of the union, we have maintained a culture of substance over personality. If McMullin can’t or won’t speak to the issues and runs a campaign in attack mode, the advantage is all the more Lee’s.
Utahns have peculiar and unique issues that are important to them, and many of them, even on the Left, are fierce localists. If McMullin tries to make this campaign a stand-in for a national debate over a former President instead of speaking to state and local issues important to Utahns today, they will revolt against this subversion of their election, and the advantage slides even more heavily in Lee’s favor.
I’m not saying Mike Lee deserves another six years in the Senate. I’m not saying that Mike Lee shouldn’t be challenged or that Utah doesn’t deserve a better choice or a chance to choose a different approach. I’m only laying out the realities on the ground and offering a warning to those who I fear are putting way too much stock into a campaign and narrative that, with the unavoidable facts laid out, has a snowball’s chance in St. George of being anything more than another quixotic gesture.