In a year full of other strangeness that will make one heck of a miniseries someday, why not have a weird Senate race to toss into the mix? I’m still not entirely sure what’s gotten into the people of Utah this year, but there is actually a competitive campaign going on there that Politico is describing as “the strangest Senate race in America.” Republican Mike Lee is up for reelection, a race that should have been a given in any other circumstances. But independent former presidential candidate (at least on paper) Evan McMullin has somehow talked Utah Democrats into not fielding a candidate this year, leaving him free to take on Lee. His main campaign promise thus far is that he will not caucus with either the Democrats or the Republicans, instead being a “one-man caucus” who will “take on” both Chuck Schumer and Mitch McConnell. Perhaps the strangest thing of all is that McMullin is doing well enough in the polls to actually make the race look sort of competitive.
There’s Evan McMullin, a former presidential candidate who’s convinced Utah Democrats to not run a candidate while saying he’d buck both Chuck Schumer and Mitch McConnell to become a one-man caucus if he’s elected. Then there’s incumbent Sen. Mike Lee, a pugnacious two-term conservative who once detested Donald Trump so much that his 2016 presidential pick was … McMullin.
Awkwardly stuck in the middle: Sen. Mitt Romney, whose neutrality in the race McMullin “greatly appreciates.”
McMullin is running as an independent in the mold of Romney or Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), a novel strategy that requires support from Democrats, independents and anti-Trump Republicans in a deep-red state. He says the race is “close,” citing public polls showing him within 5 points; during an interview, Lee handed over an internal poll showing him up by 14.
It’s not that McMullin doesn’t have a following in his home state. In 2016, running for president as an independent he managed to snag 21% of the vote. That’s impressive for an independent candidate, but not enough to put you over the finish line. Still, he has the cooperation of Utah Democrats and will no doubt attract their votes in November, possibly along with some independents.
That’s something that everyone should keep in mind, however. McMullin claims to be a total independent, playing no favorites in party alignment. But you can see the level of support he’s getting from Democrats in his home state. Also, he endorsed Joe Biden in 2020. The only tacit support you see for him from Republicans comes from Mitt Romney, who is remaining “neutral” (which should tell you all you need to know), and the remaining scraps of the never-Trumpers. So he will basically wind up being a Democrat in all but name. Still, if he refuses to caucus with either party in the event that he somehow wins, that will complicate matters for the Democrats. We are likely to still have a closely divided Senate when this is all over, but an unaffiliated seat in Utah is not the same as flipping a seat from red to blue. The Democrats would still need fifty seats to keep the majority.
Does he actually have a chance? There are still a few months to go, so nothing is completely off the table. But the last three polls at RealClearPolitics showed Mike Lee with leads of either five or six points and not much movement in the race. The “strange” nature of this race may prove to be the factor that causes it to stagnate early. The people who don’t want to see the GOP lose this seat are unlikely to start migrating toward McMullin and the Democrats and never-Trumpers will be unlikely to flip to Lee. Where the dividing line stands right now might end up being precisely where it will be in November. But in a year as strange as 2022, who the heck knows? A pig with wings might show up as a write-in candidate and sweep the whole thing.