Here’s what happened when Evan McMullin, an anti-Trump former Republican, tried to take on Mike Lee, an early Big Lie evangelist.
By Elie Mystal
Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) (right) and independent challenger Evan McMullin (left) before their televised debate. It is the only time they will appear together before the November midterm elections. (Rick Bowmer / AP Photo)
Utah Senator Mike Lee should lose his reelection bid and be drummed out of office for his support of the scheme to install fake electors to overturn the 2020 election. Text messages from Lee to former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows revealed that Lee was an early and vocal advocate of the idea that Trump should challenge the results of the election he lost. “If a very small handful of states were to have their legislatures appoint alternative slates of delegates, there could be a plan,” he wrote to Meadows. Lee was also an early backer of now-disgraced lawyer Sidney Powell, helping her secure an audience with the White House. On January 4, two days before the insurrection, Lee whined to Meadows: “I’ve been spending 14 hours a day for the last week trying to unravel this for [Trump]”—“this,” of course, being the election results.
Lee hasn’t gotten as much attention for his efforts to overturn the election as he should. That’s partially because other texts from Lee to Meadows are more mockable than probative. Lee pathetically asked Meadows: “Tell me what I should be saying,” three weeks after the election. Lee, “the toadie who needs a Trump hall pass to go to the bathroom,” is an easier story to cover than Lee, “the constitutional insurrectionist.”
The national media might be giving Lee a pass, but in Utah there are voters who are paying attention. Despite Utah’s well-earned reputation as one of the reddest states in the nation, its Republicans have been more resistant to Trumpism than their GOP brethren. Trump underperformed in Utah (he won 58 percent of the vote, as opposed to, say, Wyoming’s nearly 70 percent), and the state’s other senator is Mitt Romney, who voted for Trump to be impeached for his attempted coup.
Lee finds himself in a tight race for reelection against Republican turned independent Evan McMullin. McMullin unsuccessfully ran for president in 2016, specifically as an anti-Trump conservative alternative. He’s been closer to Lee in the polls, within four or five points, than one would ordinarily have expected of a person running against a Republican incumbent in a solidly Republican state. Then again, McMullin is a CIA veteran with normal conservative bona fides—but for his exclusion from the cult of Trump. The two candidates squared off on the debate stage on Monday night.
In many ways, their debate was like every other general election debate this cycle: McMullin talked about the insurrection, the attacks on democracy, and how tribalism is ruining American politics. Lee said the word “inflation” six times in his opening two minutes (I counted), and made fun of Biden for being old.
Lee sidestepped the obvious implications of his own text messages by straight-up pretending that he meant something else when he wrote them. He cast all of his support for fake electors as doing “research” as to whether alternative slates of electors were possible. He said his plea to be told what to say was actually his merely asking Trump’s team to share their message. As a Supreme Court watcher, I found it crazy-making that Lee, a lawyer and Senate Judiciary Committee member who is one of the biggest advocates of “textualism” in constitutional interpretation, was on stage making arguments that defied the plain meaning of his own text messages. But the moderator didn’t call Lee out for his intellectual hypocrisy or unbelievable explanations. As usual, when Republicans are allowed to debate without being held accountable by fact-checkers, they just say whatever they want, never mind truth or reality.
I watched the debate on YouTube, which means I was able to see an unscientific sample of the real-time reactions of Lee supporters, McMullin supporters, and bots supporting Mike Lee and Vladimir Putin. During the January 6 discussion, Lee supporters accused McMullin of “lying” about Lee’s record, while McMullin’s people repeated that “it’s all in the text messages.” Lee supporters would periodically say, “What text messages?”—to which the bots would respond in all-caps “JAN 6 YAWN”—at which point I imagine McMullin’s people figuratively tearing their hair out and opening their liquor cabinet to search for a warm glass of milk.
I think McMullin could win this race if more people in Utah actually knew what Lee was up to between November 7, 2020, and January 6, 2021. The problem is that Fox News or OAN or Breitbart never tells them about it, and those are the only “news” sources most of these people listen to.
Arguably, McMullin will get all the voters who both know what happened on January 6 and think it was bad. Lee will get all the voters who think the attempted coup was a good thing. But there are also all those voters who don’t know or don’t care about the insurrection, and with them it’s harder to see the path for McMullin. McMullin claims to be offering a non-extremist alternative to the Republican agenda, but, to my mind, that never really works. It fails because Republican candidates, like Lee, can just lie about what they believe or what they will do, and nobody will be around to fact-check. It fails because so-called centrists always cede too much ground to conservative culture war issues without adopting the popular programs and policies of the left.
Take abortion. McMullin and Lee are both anti-choice candidates. Lee says he was “thrilled” by the Dobbs decision that overturned Roe v. Wade (which he should be: Lee is one of the people who worked tirelessly to put people like Amy Coney Barrett and alleged attempted rapist Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court). McMullin said he supports life but is against the extremist, anti-choice bills being passed in some states. He said, specifically, that he favored exceptions in the cases of rape, incest, and life of the mother.
McMullin’s position used to be the standard GOP party line on abortion rights. As recently as 20 years ago, the idea that there’d be no exceptions, even in the most traumatic and life-threatening cases, was a fringe idea supported only by religious kooks. But now, it’s conservative dogma to ban exceptions. Lee is one of those Republicans who has supported bills that provide no exceptions for rape and incest, like Texas’s abortion bounty hunter bill. And Dobbs, the case Lee is “thrilled” about, also contains no exceptions. But when pressed on the debate stage, he tried to muddy the issue, claiming he simply favored the idea that states should make the decision. It’s all well and good for McMullin to try to make a nuanced distinction between which rights should be taken away, but I imagine a pro-choice person in Utah feeling like they have little to choose between, and a pro-life-with-exceptions person not really understanding the difference between the candidates.
To invert the phrase, McMullin presented a difference without a distinction on economic fronts too. From inflation to student debt relief, he tried to toe some kind of limited government line where he wanted to reduce federal spending and “narrow” entitlement grants, while criticizing both the Biden administration and the profligate Trump administration for contributing to the problem. Lee agreed with all of this, except that he blamed everything on Biden, the Democrats, and “10” unnamed Republicans whom Lee accused of voting with Democrats during the Trump administration. If you are actually so addled and easily bamboozled as to believe that federal spending is the reason gas prices are high, I imagine Lee’s “blame the current president” message is what you want to hear. I would have liked McMullin to say, “The president does not have a magic gas price faucet he can uncork to bathe the market in gasoline. Stop being dumb.” But, such a line doesn’t go over well with voters who are told every night that Hunter Biden is snorting crude oil off his laptop, refining it, and giving it away to Black people for free.
McMullin did score the line of the night. Lee made some kind of facile attack on his character, and McMullin quipped, “And you voted for me in 2016.” Which Lee did. After the Access Hollywood tape revealed Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women, Lee released a video claiming to disavow Trump and ended up supporting McMullin. Just four years later, Lee was the one on the phone trying to figure out how to help Trump overturn the election. Such braying hypocrisy should really end a person’s public career.
But it probably won’t. Utah voters might be more resistant to Trumpism than the average Republican Chad or Karen, but they’ve still succumbed to Fox News brain. Facts won’t matter, text messages won’t matter, and Mike Lee will get another six years to “research” how the Constitution can be used to take away rights from women, pregnant people, and voters who don’t support Trump.