When Evan McMullin—a Republican-leaning former CIA officer and friend of mine who ran for president in 2016—told me his plan to run as an independent for Senate in Utah, I didn’t really think it would work. Since 2015, people have been telling me high-minded ways they were going to save democracy, and as a result I’ve gotten pretty cynical. But I want to believe that American democracy can be saved by normal citizens doing the right thing. And personally, I really like Evan, even though I fiercely disagree with him on most issues, from abortion to gun control. He’s been a friend since he met one of my teenage children, who was feeling lost at the time, and Evan told him the story of how he tried to join the CIA when he was a young teen. That story changed my teen’s life, giving him the kind of agency that young people sometimes desperately need.
Still, when McMullin shared his plans with me, I initially thought it was inconceivable that the Democrats he wanted to attract would support someone with his Republican policies. But with our deeply siloed electorate, it’s easy to forget that there are weird states where today’s national partisan politics don’t apply. In Alaska in 2010, after losing the Republican primary, Senator Lisa Murkowski won as a write-in candidate. And there have been times when deeply red or blue states decided to go another way—Kentucky and Kansas have Democratic governors, and Massachusetts is led by a Republican.
On Saturday, McMullin took one step closer to winning when the Utah Democratic Party delegates voted, 57 percent to 43 percent, to not nominate anyone to challenge the incumbent, Mike Lee. This wasn’t Democrats giving up. It was them deciding to join forces with moderate Republicans to replace a Trumper, Lee, with McMullin. If this strange coalition works, it could be a model for other red and purple states looking to rid themselves of Trumpers.
I texted Evan about the win, and he suggested that officials like Lee are a threat to the future of American politics. “A new coalition of Utahns and other Americans is forming to defend our democratic republic and find common ground to solve problems,” he wrote me. “I’m grateful that Democratic delegates in Utah voted to join us. Our opportunity to bring change to Utah and the nation is great.”
It’s important to realize that Utah is wildly different from other red states. Donald Trump won there by about 300,000 votes in 2020. Mormons, who make up around 60 percent of the state, have traditionally voted Republican, and Mike Lee is the son of a famous Mormon, Rex Lee, who once served as solicitor general under Ronald Reagan. But unlike evangelicals, Mormons tend to apply moral standards to the personal lives of their politicians—and Mike Lee supports a certain thrice-married alleged adulterer who previously served as president.
Lee has been a loyal Trumper, but it’s possible that he pushed it too far when, in October 2020, he told a crowd in Arizona, “To my Mormon friends, my Latter-day Saint friends, think of [Trump] as Captain Moroni. He seeks not power, but to pull it down. He seeks not the praise of the world or the ‘fake news,’ but he seeks the well-being and the peace of the American people.” Turns out that was an extremely good way to offend a lot of Mormons, comparing their spiritual leader to a guy of sketchy (at best) moral character. U.S. Mormons under 40 voted 47 percent for Joe Biden, compared to 42 percent for Trump, according to data from the Cooperative Election Study.
Lee later tried to walk the comparison back in a Facebook post: “Some people found that comparison upsetting, blasphemous, and otherwise wrong. I respect their right to feel that way, and realize that my impromptu comments may not have been the best forum for drawing a novel analogy from scripture.” But here’s the problem with Mike Lee’s apology—to truly be a Trumpist, you have to put Trump above all else, including your religion. Sooner or later, on the stump, Lee will likely put Trumpism ahead of Mormonism.
Mitt Romney is now declining to endorse Lee, which has caused conservative Washington Post columnist Henry Olsen to lose his mind. “If McMullin were to win,” Olsen writes, “he and Romney could theoretically join [other] moderates to form a bloc of five who could determine control of the Senate. That may be far-fetched, but such cross-partisan arrangements are not uncommon in state legislatures.” What he doesn’t mention is that a small bloc of moderates could be the one thing that foils the coronation of Trump 2.0 or another Republican autocrat.