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In Utah, independent Evan McMullin poses a challenge for Trump-backed Sen. Mike Lee

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Utah is a true Republican stronghold. It's been more than 25 years since a Democrat won statewide office there. Now an independent candidate has a shot at unseating Republican Senator Mike Lee. Lee does have the endorsement of former President Donald Trump. It's yet another key race in the Senate that's up for grabs come midterms. Sean Higgins is a politics reporter at member station KUER in Salt Lake City.

Hi, Sean.

SEAN HIGGINS, BYLINE: Great to be here, Ayesha.

RASCOE: So the independent candidate, Evan McMullin - he was actually very much a Republican until Donald Trump came along, right?

HIGGINS: Yes. McMullin calls himself a conservative. He's a former CIA officer, and for a while he served as the chief policy director for the House GOP. But he says he realized he could no longer back where the party was going as Trump was campaigning in the Republican primary in 2016. McMullin says he was at a party meeting that year where Trump spoke and gave an answer to a question that made it clear to him that Trump did not know or respect the Constitution.

EVAN MCMULLIN: That was a moment that, for me, confirmed that he was someone who, like others I had seen during my CIA service abroad, who wanted to pursue power at the expense of people. He wanted to be a dictator in America.

RASCOE: And McMullin didn't just leave the Republican Party. Like, he ran for president against Trump in 2016 as an independent, right?

HIGGINS: That's right. He was only on the ballot in a handful of states but actually won 21% of the vote here in Utah. And Senator Mike Lee, who he's running against right now, actually voted for him and not Trump.

RASCOE: So Senator Lee did not vote for Trump in 2016, but Trump is actually still endorsing Lee in this election?

HIGGINS: You're right. Even though Utah is a very Republican state, many conservatives here have long had issues with Trump. Senator Mitt Romney has very famously stood against him. But as Trump ascended to the White House, some Utah Republicans switched to embracing him. And that includes Mike Lee. We've been trying to ask him about that, but he's not talking much to the media in this race. The state GOP, though, is firmly behind Lee. They're attacking McMullin as not conservative as he claims to be. They point out that he convinced Utah Democrats to not run a candidate against Lee this year.

Here's Utah GOP Chairman Carson Jorgensen.

CARSON JORGENSEN: Nobody really knows where this guy stands 'cause it changes from day to day.

HIGGINS: Just to be super clear, the Dems have actually endorsed McMullin in this race - part of why Politico has called this the strangest Senate race in America.

RASCOE: So how close is this race?

HIGGINS: The most recent polling shows the race pretty neck and neck, with a large number of voters still undecided. And there are about a half million active voters in Utah who are not registered with any political party. That's about 28% of the electorate. Now, a lot of those independent voters usually end up voting for Republicans.

I talked to University of Utah political science professor James Curry, and he says the voters who identify as independent present both an opportunity and a challenge for McMullin.

JAMES CURRY: It would take McMullin being able to do enough to really galvanize voters of all stripes who have any hesitancy about Mike Lee or Donald Trump. All of them would need to show up, and Mike Lee would probably have to make some missteps.

HIGGINS: So far, we have not seen many missteps from Lee. In addition to getting Trump's endorsement this spring, just last week, he was also endorsed by former Vice President Mike Pence. That being said, it has been revealed that Lee was in contact with the Trump White House following the 2020 election and was actually encouraging plans to overturn the election. He later reversed course and voted to certify the election on January 6.

RASCOE: Sean Higgins covers politics at KUER in Salt Lake City.

Thank you so much.

HIGGINS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: October 1, 2022 at 11:00 PM CDT
The original headline of this story mistakenly said former President Donald Trump had backed Evan McMullin. In fact, Trump has backed Mike Lee.
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Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Sean Higgins