The Utah Democratic Party did something extraordinary last week: They threw their support behind a Republican. Well, a former Republican, anyway. Evan McMullin, who ran for president as an independent in 2016, is now seeking to unseat Senator Mike Lee.
At the state Democratic convention, held at Cottonwood High School in Murray (don’t you love democracy?), some delegates were uncomfortable. One told the Deseret News that he “never imagined my fellow Democrats would disenfranchise me,” adding that “Democrats need to be on the ballot.” But most delegates were swayed by the arguments of former Democratic Rep. Ben McAdams, who vouched for McMullin’s integrity and urged that he would help “heal the divide” in Washington. Besides, he said, McMullin has a real path to victory. The Democrats agreed, and with 57 percent voting in favor, elected to join a coalition that also includes the United Utah party to endorse McMullin.
Now, cards on the table, it isn’t as if any Democratic nominee would stand a ghost of a chance. Utah hasn’t elected a Democrat to the Senate in more than fifty years, and Republicans outnumber Democrats in the state five-to-one. But McMullin is a political unicorn—a former Republican, CIA veteran, and conservative who garnered 21 percent of the vote in Utah when he made his quixotic presidential bid in 2016.
Lee was swept into office by the Tea Party wave of 2010. He defeated incumbent Republican Bob Bennett in the primary by arguing that Bennett had lost his edge after years in D.C. Lee claimed that he, by contrast, was a “constitutional conservative.” His website boasts that he has “spent his career defending the fundamental liberties of all Americans and advocating for America’s founding constitutional principles.”
Unless those principles conflict with his personal ambitions. Maybe that’s in the small print.
Lee was among the last holdouts at the national GOP convention in 2016, attempting to deploy procedural rules to deny Trump the nomination. In July of that year, adverting to Trump’s “authoritarian” tendencies, he shot back at a MAGA radio host, “Don’t sit there and tell me I have no reason to be concerned about Donald Trump. . . . I mean we can get into the fact that he accused my best friend’s father of conspiring to kill JFK.”
Over the following years, like every other leading Republican except those you can list on two hands, Lee immolated his constitutional principles on a pyre. As Amanda Carpenter itemized, the recently revealed text messages to Donald Trump’s White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows reveal a senator not only willing to overlook a little authoritarianism now and again, but an active participant in a behind-the-scenes effort to overturn a free and fair election. On December 8, 2020, for example, Lee texted to Meadows that “If a very small handful of states were to have their legislatures appoint alternative slates of delegates, there could be a path.” Lee, you see, wanted the coup to be by the book. If the states (only the ones Trump lost, of course) submitted alternate slates of electors, why then, according to the Constitution and the Electoral Count Act (which Democrats should have repealed and replaced by now), the MAGA forces could stall and possibly prevent the certification of Biden’s victory. Lee later texted to Meadows that he was on the phone “14 hours a day” discussing whether state legislators were going to submit “clean” slates for Trump. After the texts leaked, Lee told the Deseret News that “At no point in any of those was I engaging in advocacy. I wasn’t in any way encouraging them to do that. I just asked them a yes or no question.”
It didn’t occur to Mr. Constitutional Conservative that phone calls from a United States senator to state legislators asking questions might be interpreted as signals or even possibly as threats? He certainly knew that Trump was engaging in every possible ploy to overturn the election. What business did this senator from Utah have even calling legislators from Pennsylvania or Michigan? And he wasn’t troubled by the utter fallaciousness of the election fraud claims, rejected by courts something like 63 times, that would be the foundation of any effort to submit alternative slates? That’s the nub of it. It was a lie—a blatant, stinking lie.
In October 2020, Lee famously tweeted “We are not a democracy.” It’s a familiar conservative talking point. We are a republic. True. A democratic republic. Article IV, Section 4 of the Constitution that Lee claims to revere guarantees to each state a “republican form of government.” A republican form of government depends utterly on votes being counted legally and properly. Otherwise, the Constitution’s guarantee becomes a dead letter, rather like the sham elections in Russia or Cuba. It seems that Lee wanted to use the Constitution as a fig leaf for a naked power grab. Yes, he ultimately voted to certify Biden’s victory, but only after granting the coup plot legitimacy with his backroom maneuvering.
The Utah Democratic Party has demonstrated flexibility, too rare a trait in today’s politics. Utahns now have a rare opportunity to strike a blow for democracy and the Constitution. A McMullin victory would signal that there are consequences for betraying your oath and making a mockery of appeals to the Constitution.