The Utah Senate race between conservative Republican Sen. Mike Lee and Independent Evan McMullin has emerged as a potential wild card in the battle for the Senate.
Recent polls show the race is close, with McMullin trailing Lee by only a few points in a state where Republican victories are usually all but guaranteed.
Lee, a conservative who supported then-President Trump’s effort to challenge the 2020 election results on Jan. 6, is a star among many members of Utah’s Republican base, but his unpopularity among moderates and Democrats has driven his approval rating down to the low 40s.
“This is within the margin of error,” said Richard Davis, an emeritus professor of political science at Brigham Young University, citing recent polls by Deseret News and the Hinckley Institute of Politics. “It could go either way. It’s basically neck and neck.”
If McMullin manages to pull off an upset, his pledge to not caucus with either Democrats or Republicans could throw the battle for control of the Senate into turmoil.
If Republicans wind up keeping retiring Sen. Pat Toomey’s (R) Pennsylvania seat in GOP hands and defeating the Democratic incumbent in Nevada or Georgia, McMullin could still keep the Senate under Democratic control by voting for Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) as majority leader.
Conversely, he could swing it to Republicans by affiliating with Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) or simply not affiliating with either party, which would give Republicans a 50-to-49 seat majority with one unaffiliated senator in the chamber.
“He’s in the catbird seat because as an Independent both sides are going to want to give him something” to get his vote for determining the Senate majority in an evenly split chamber, Davis said.
“I can’t imagine that he’s going to caucus with the Republicans, but he had to say that he wasn’t going to caucus with the Democrats to win over the very people he’s trying to win over right now,” Davis said of the moderate Republicans who aren’t thrilled about voting for Lee but wouldn’t consider voting for a Democrat, either.
“He could be in an extremely powerful situation if he gets to determine which way the Senate is organized, which party gets the majority,” he added. “I think what he’s going to do is negotiate on Utah’s behalf, get things for Utah out of this.”
The latest Deseret-Hinckley poll shows Lee leading McMullin by four points, 41 percent to 37 percent, with 12 percent of Utah voters undecided.
The poll found that 40 percent of respondents had a favorable view of Lee, while 47 percent had an unfavorable view.
Lee’s allies, however, argue that the Deseret poll put too much weight on registered instead of likely voters, skewing the results in favor of McMullin.
Lee’s allies think it’s more likely that the incumbent wins by a healthy margin of 10 or more points.
The poll, however, found the numbers stay largely the same among likely voters and the race tightens among those who say they will definitely vote, with Lee leading McMullin 42-40 percent.
“Mike Lee is leading this race. Every reliable poll shows Sen. Lee with a significant lead and our internal polling gives us even greater confidence in the strong support he has across the state,” said Matt Lusty, an adviser to the Lee campaign.
Utah Democrats helped McMullin significantly by declining to endorse one of their own members and instead backing McMullin at their state convention in April. The Deseret poll found 68 percent of Democrats backing McMullin, and he leads with unaffiliated voters as well.
Davis said if McMullin can win over more Republican moderates who see themselves more in the same camp as Utah’s centrist Republican Sen. Mitt Romney, who voted twice to convict Trump on impeachment charges, he could wind up winning.
McMullin ran as an Independent for president in 2016 and turned in his best performance in Utah, where he won 21 percent of the vote in the general election — trailing the Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton by only 6 points. Trump carried the state with 45 percent of the vote.
Boyd Matheson, a prominent Utah radio host who formerly served as Lee’s chief of staff, said McMullin would find himself under tremendous pressure to pick a side if he manages to defy the odds and win election to an evenly divided Senate.
The Senate’s two current Independents — Bernie Sanders (Vt.) and Angus King (Maine) — both caucus with Democrats. Neither, however, had to defeat a sitting senator to win their seats.
“He would be under immense pressure from both Democrats and Republicans and picking a side at this point matters because if you look at someone like a [Sen.] Joe Manchin [D-W.Va.], the reason Manchin has power because he’s in the room,” Matheson said.
He said if McMullin refuses to caucus with either party, he won’t have any way to sit on a committee without getting a special deal from one of the party leaders.
“That’s going to be the challenge for McMullin. If he wins, can he have any influence without any committee assignment without being in the Republican lunch or the Democratic caucus lunch?” he said.
The race was largely overlooked until Lee went on Fox News host Tucker Carlson’s show Tuesday to plead for Romney’s endorsement, a surprising move since Romney made clear early in the race that he would stay neutral.
“As soon as Mitt Romney is ready to, I will eagerly accept his endorsement,” Lee pleaded on Carlson’s show. “Evan McMullin is raising millions of dollars off Act Blue, the Democratic donor database based on this idea that he’s going to defeat me and help perpetuate the Democratic majority.”
“I’ve asked him, I’m asking him right here again tonight right now,” Lee said. “Please get on board. Help me win reelection.”
Senate aides say Lee’s pleas for help from Romney were especially surprising given that they have clashed repeatedly this Congress, starting with Lee’s strong support for Trump’s effort to challenge the 2020 election results through the courts.
Romney, by contrast, was the only Senate Republican to vote to convict Trump after both of his impeachment trials.
The two Utah senators have also clashed over major policy differences. Lee voted against the three major bipartisan initiatives that Romney supported during President Biden’s term: a $1 trillion infrastructure bill; legislation addressing gun violence after the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas; and a $280 billion bill to support the domestic semiconductor industry.
But Lee and Romney have also worked together on bills to help constituents in Utah, such as the bill they introduced in April to address housing supply and affordability by allowing parcels of federal land to be purchased at a reduced price.
And they pool their staff to work jointly on constituents’ special cases.
Even so, Romney and Lee are hardly considered friends.
Davis, the emeritus political scientist, said Romney is “unlikely” to change his mind and endorse Lee “because I don’t think these two get along well.”
“He can’t endorse McMullin because that would probably be a step too far to do that but by not endorsing [Lee] he’s certainly sending a message,” he added of Romney.
Adding to the surreal moment on Carlson’s show, Trump waded into the race by releasing a statement praising Lee as an “outstanding senator” and criticizing Romney harshly for not endorsing his home-state colleague — bringing fresh attention to the possibility that Lee, who won reelection in a landslide six years ago, might be in trouble.
Trump declared that Romney’s decision to stay neutral in the race “has abused” Lee “in an unprecedented way.”
Lusty, Lee’s campaign adviser, said: “Sen. Lee sees it as important for all members of the party to stand together and he welcomes the public endorsement of all of his Senate GOP colleagues, including Sen. Romney.”
But Romney’s defenders are quick to note that Lee refused to endorse late Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) when he ran for reelection in 2012 and Lee’s chief of staff at the time, Spencer Stokes, predicted that Hatch would lose because he had already spent far too much time in Washington.
Fundraising data collected by the Federal Election Commission as of Oct. 14 showed that Lee had raised $7.9 million for his reelection while McMullin had raised $3.2 million.
Outside interest groups are also pouring money into the race.
The conservative Club for Growth, a group long allied with Lee, has already spent $2.2 million on the Utah Senate race and has vowed to pour more money into the race, according to The Salt Lake Tribune.
On the other side, the Put Utah First PAC has spent more than $2.5 million to help McMullin.