Evan McMullin: Yeah, I might primary Orrin Hatch in 2018 -- or Jason Chaffetz

Actually, does he say definitively that he’d pursue a primary challenge against one of them instead of a general-election challenge as an independent? He mentions Chaffetz’s primary voters in the excerpt, but that may just mean that if Republicans are loyal to Chaffetz, there’s no chance of beating him in November 2018.

Who stands a better chance, Republican Evan McMullin or conservative independent Evan McMullin?

“It is likely that I will seek public office again,” McMullin said in a Reddit “ask me anything” chat. “That might be in 2018 or it might be sometime down the road, perhaps very far down the road.

“It is possible that I will challenge Chaffetz or Senator Hatch, but there are a lot of factors that go into that decision. One of the primary factors is what the people of Utah want.”

McMullin has floated taking on Hatch — the longest-serving GOP senator in history — before. But this appears to be the first time he’s mentioned possibly running against Chaffetz…

“Plenty of people outside of Utah or who do not vote in the Republican primary are eager to see Chaffetz replaced, for example,” McMullin said. “But he may be supported by his Republican primary voters and, if so, that has to be taken into account.”

Either race would be a heavy lift for McMullin, which probably means he’s blowing smoke here. Yeah, Chaffetz got booed at his town hall last month, but there’s no telling how many of those people were Democratic activists. He’s won his last three House elections with more than 70 percent of the vote; there’s little reason to think he’s vulnerable in a primary, despite the occasional unfavorable news cycle, and zero reason to think he’s vulnerable in a general election. There is reason to think that Hatch is vulnerable after that splashy poll from February showing him getting blown out in a hypothetical Senate match-up with Jon Huntsman, but Huntsman’s a proven winner with high name recognition in the state. He’s a former governor and his family is highly esteemed in Utah. McMullin’s a guy who managed just 21 percent against Trump in a state where the president was unpopular, and he’s seemingly spent every waking moment since the election bashing him on Twitter and TV. And although Trump isn’t popular overall in Utah, he’s popular with the voters who count in a primary: Two polls taken in January had him at 68 percent and 71 percent favorability among Utah Republicans — not spectacular for his own party but probably good enough to push his favored candidate through a GOP primary. If McMullin challenged Hatch, Trump would swoop into the state to campaign on Hatch’s behalf. And there’s every reason to believe, despite voter disgust with Hatch’s endless stint in the Senate, that that would squash McMullin.

If McMullin skipped the primary and ran as an independent in the general election, he could in theory unite Democrats behind him because of his anti-Trump pedigree (Utah Democrats are almost unanimous in the polls I mentioned in viewing Trump unfavorably) and peel off enough anti-Hatch Republicans to win. As I say — in theory. In practice, Evan McMullin as an independent candidate in Utah performed worse than most poll-watchers expected last November and probably would perform worse yet in 2018. For starters, by bypassing the primary, he’d have ceded the Republican mantle in Utah to Hatch, which in itself should be enough for Hatch to win easily. Beyond that, the idea of Democrats unifying behind McMullin purely in the interest of thwarting Trump and ousting the dinosaur Hatch is a pipe dream. More likely, Utah Dems would nominate their own no-hope left-wing candidate, as self-defeating as that may be, and McMullin would struggle to find a constituency. It’s probably the primary or bust for EM. And in a way, he’s a singularly bad candidate to take Hatch on in a primary. If you want to unseat an 83-year-old who’s been in the Senate for ages, the smart play would seem to be to turn the primary into a referendum on him. We need fresh blood; you can’t drain the swamp with people who’ve been swamp-dwellers for decades in charge. Anyone but Hatch! Make the primary all about the incumbent and you might catch populist lightning in a bottle. (Huntsman, while no populist, was so unobjectionable to Utahns that anti-Hatch sentiment carried him to a gigantic lead in that poll I mentioned from January.) McMullin’s problem is that he’s spent so much of his time in public bashing Trump that a Hatch/McMullin contest would likely become a referendum on Trump. And as I say, Trump’s numbers in Utah aren’t bad. Absent a spectacular collapse in his public support nationally over the next two years, Republican voters in a Republican state are going to give a vote of confidence to a Republican president if a local primary becomes a proxy fight over his agenda.

Here’s McMullin in January announcing the launch of his new group devoted to — what else? — criticizing Trump. Exit question: What if he did win Hatch’s seat somehow? Can you imagine this guy, a member of the president’s own party, criticizing him daily in these terms as a U.S. senator?

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