Report: Utah GOP worried that McMullin's surge might grow into a conservative third party

The party of free markets and competition doesn’t want any competition for its market share on the right? Huh.

I doubt the GOP has anything to worry about here, but this explains why McMullin has failed to land any major endorsements despite the party establishment’s obvious contempt for Trump and his own surge in the polls. It’s not a matter of costing Trump electoral votes, it’s a matter of not wanting to fertilize the belief that a conservative third party really could vie for supremacy there with the two major parties. That idea, once a proven success, could grow and sap the state GOP’s stranglehold on political power in Utah. Convince conservatives that Republicans aren’t the only bulwark against the left and suddenly the argument for sticking with the GOP through thick and thin becomes, well, thin.

For [McMullin], these craven capitulations [to Trump] have highlighted the need for a new center-right party in American politics — and he’s not alone. A growing chorus of conservative commentators — repulsed by Trump and wary of Trumpism’s spread in the GOP— has begun publicly musing about secession. On ABC’s “This Week,” National Review writer Jonah Goldberg predicted that if Trump continues to exert his toxic influence after Nov. 8, “we are going to see a new party emerge.” In the Wall Street Journal, columnist Bret Stephens wrote, “If I can’t get my Grand Old Party back, I’d rather help build a new one.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, McMullin’s most high-profile endorsements have come from people of this ilk, like Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol and talk radio host Erick Erickson…

But it is still deep-red Utah where this project could have the most disruptive long-term implications. Sources close to the state party here said Republican officials have watched McMullin-mania with growing alarm. For Trump to lose the most conservative state in the country would be humiliating enough — but a sustained challenge from local third-party candidates modeled after McMullin could pose a much greater threat going forward. Already, Trump’s candidacy has taken a toll on the GOP’s hold on its Mormon constituency: A Pew survey released last month found that fewer than 50% of Latter-day Saints now identify as Republicans.

It’s true, LDS identification with the GOP in Utah has waxed and waned over the last four years, reaching a recent high of more than 60 percent when fellow Mormon Mitt Romney was the Republican nominee and dropping to 48 percent this year with Trump atop the ticket. It was 80 percent (including leaners) as recently as 2011, after the big red wave in the midterm elections. How do you squeeze a viable third party out of that, though? The current political climate feels like a perfect storm for a conservative insurgency in Utah: Trump’s lifestyle represents an almost total break with “family values” social conservatism, capped by the “Access Hollywood” tape and the sexual-assault accusations, while McMullin is a perfect cipher for Utah conservatives — unassuming, Mormon, born and educated in-state, impressively credentialed via his work for the CIA and House Republicans. Trump also increasingly looks like a loser next month, reducing the pressure on undecided Utahns to stick with the GOP nominee in the name of taking back the White House.

And yet … McMullin still trails in nearly every poll. He’s three points behind in the latest one from Rasmussen, a two-point drop since their previous one. With the lone exception of Emerson College polling, whose methodology is questionable, he has yet to hit 30 percent there despite Trump’s voluminous political problems. He’s put enough pressure on the ticket to force Mike Pence to hold a rally there, but if McMullin can’t beat a deeply unpopular, badly damaged Republican nominee now, why would a different little-known third-party nominee expect to seriously threaten more traditional Republican candidates in Utah going forward? All it would take to cure Utahns of third-party fever is for a sizable minority of conservatives to break with the party in a key statewide race and inadvertently hand the seat to Democrats. In fact, there’s a danger of that happening now: Clinton’s within five points of the lead in three of the last four polls there.

A Twitter pal wonders: Might there be another reason the state party is eager to send McMullin packing?

The Senate’s most senior Republican — Utah’s Orrin Hatch — is seriously considering a run for an eighth term, a move that would reverse his 2012 declaration that he would retire at the end of his current term.

Hatch is mulling a run for an eighth term in the 2018 midterms, according to Republicans in Washington and Utah, though he has made no final decision and will likely wait until the current election is over to do so. And if he were to run again, he could draw a primary challenge from Republicans that have been itching to run for a statewide seat since Hatch first announced his retirement plans.

Hatch is the elder statesman of the Utah Republican Party but he got a primary scare in 2012 and may get one again — especially if McMullin, having won Utah in the presidential election, decides to challenge him for his Senate seat either in the primary or as a third-party conservative in 2018. (Hatch will be 84 on election day 2018, an obscene age to be seeking another six-year term.) That would be a fascinating race, not just because McMullin would start with unusually high name recognition for an independent but because many grassroots Republicans would be tempted to back him in the name of retiring Beltway barnacle Hatch. The state party may be trying to head that off now by defeating McMullin before his third-party vehicle gets real traction in Utah. That also probably explains Jason Chaffetz’s bizarre flip-flop-flip on Trump, in which he endorsed him, then un-endorsed him after the “Access Hollywood” tape, then tweeted last night that he’ll be voting for Trump even though he doesn’t endorse him. Chaffetz has also had his eye on Hatch’s Senate seat, but pulling his endorsement from Trump a few weeks ago probably helped build support for McMullin to the annoyance of the state party. If he wants the Utah GOP’s support in case Hatch doesn’t run in 2018 after all, staying on their good side by not doing anything to help McMullin now is a wise idea. (Especially since McMullin might end up as Chaffetz’s main competition for the seat.)

Speaking of third parties, here’s Sean Hannity once again threatening #NeverTrumpers with the fact that he’s making a list and checking it twice and plans to indict the haters and the traitors for political crimes the day after the election if Trump loses. I see that same idea kicked around by some #NeverTrumpers vis-a-vis Trump surrogates like Hannity. Each side seems to think it’ll be the one conducting the GOP’s show trials while its opponents will be the ones in the dock. That can happen, though, if and only if both sides are convinced that they should remain within the GOP and battle for control of it. If one or the other (or both) decides it’s better off in a new party, then the trials are not only meaningless, they’ll actually encourage the disintegration of the Republican Party. I hope Hannity and his #NeverTrump counterparts realize that the defendants can, and maybe will, get up and leave this particular courtroom at any time. In which case, good luck in 2020.

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