He Got 20 Percent of Utah's 2016 Presidential Votes, Now He's Challenging Senator Mike Lee

Evan McMullin, who captured 20 percent of Utah's vote as an independent candidate in the 2016 presidential election, is challenging Republican Sen. Mike Lee for his Utah seat, the Associated Press reported. McMullin announced his candidacy in a Tweet Tuesday, where he also said that "extremism, division and conspiracy now threaten our quality of life and democratic republic."

McMullin is a former agent for the CIA and congressional aide for Republicans. Though Utah is an overwhelmingly conservative state, residents typically place a higher value on politeness and skew more toward a middle ground on political issues, the AP reported.

McMullin was able to appeal in 2016 to Utah voters who were uncomfortable voting Donald Trump. In a statement, McMullin said he was not running as either a Republican or Democrat.

"I'm running as a patriot, as an American committed to defending our nation and changing our politics for the better," he said in the statement.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Evan McMullin Announces Utah Senate Bid
Evan McMullin, who captured 20 percent of Utah's presidential vote in 2016, announced that he's running for Utah Sen. Mike Lee's seat. McMullin speaks at an "Impeach and Remove" rally at the U.S. Capitol on December 18, 2019 in Washington, DC. Larry French/Getty Images for MoveOn.org

The 2022 Senate race promises to test whether lingering discomfort with Trump-style Republican politics remains a political force in Utah. Lee, a two-term incumbent who first won office during the tea party movement, was skeptical of Trump at first but later became a staunch ally of the president.

Two Republican women also challenging Lee—former state lawmaker Becky Edwards and former gubernatorial spokeswoman Ally Isom—have been Trump skeptics in the past.

Trump did eventually win the state in 2016 with 45.5 percent, and increased his share of the vote to 58 percent in 2020. And his support among core members of the Republican party remains strong, as evidenced by a round of boos drawn by Utah's other senator, GOP Trump critic Mitt Romney, at a recent convention.

By running as a third-party candidate, McMullin won't have to vie for a nomination in front of that crowd. But he'll have his own challenges to overcome without major party backing, said University of Utah Hinckley Institute of Politics Director Jason Perry.

"It's just very hard for someone who's not a Republican or a Democrat to catch fire and get enough votes to win in the state of Utah," he said.

McMullin did make a strong showing in Utah in 2016, and was later mentioned as a possible successor to longtime Republican Senator Orrin Hatch, though Romney later won the seat.

Much of McMullin's 2016 support came from people who didn't like either major party candidate, Perry said. This time, he'll have the challenge of building a distinctive profile for himself outside the two-party system against an incumbent who still has strong support within the GOP.

In the years since his run, McMullin founded a nonprofit Stand Up Republic but may have more national name recognition than within Utah, Perry said. In his campaign announcement, McMullin referenced tackling issues such as wildfires, drought, the pandemic and health care.

This race "is going to be more about him as a person, him as a candidate, and about the issues themselves," Perry said. "That's what we will need to see over the next year, is how he tries to emerge as a candidate in his own right."

McMullin Challenging Utah Senator
Evan McMullin announced his campaign for Republican Senator Mike Lee's seat in Utah, saying that he was not running as a Republican or Democrat, but as a "patriot." McMullin, then an independent presidential candidate, watches election results in a backroom at an election night party on November 8, 2016, in Salt Lake City. George Frey/Getty Images