OREM, Utah – Fending off attacks from his independent challenger, U.S. Sen. Mike Lee of Utah worked to distinguish himself from former President Donald Trump in a contentious debate Monday evening.
“I stood against my party time and time again to oppose reckless spending. I will do it again and again and again. We need people who say no,” the second-term Republican said.
Lee repeatedly pointed to his voting record and twice told the audience at Utah Valley University that he voted less in line with Trump than all but two Republican senators — Rand Paul and Susan Collins.
“To suggest that I’m beholden to either party, that I’ve been a bootlicker for either party is folly. And it’s contradicted by the plain facts,” Lee said.
Lee faces a challenge from Evan McMullin, a former Republican known most for his long-shot bid for president six years ago, when as an independent he won 21.5% of voters in Utah, including Lee. McMullin has remained a pillar of the anti-Trump movement, attacking the former president as an authoritarian who poses a threat to democracy.
Lee's attempts to draw a distinction with Trump reflect the peculiar dynamics emerging in Utah this election cycle. In the red state's marquee race, one candidate is running as an independent and the other is attempting to emphasize his independent streak.
The race has taken shape as one of the nation's many referendums on the direction Trump has taken the GOP. McMullin is attempting to harness anti-Trump sentiment that has distinguished Utah from other Republican strongholds. Lee's last minute efforts to put space between his voting record and Trump's stances depart from his past messaging as Election Day nears.
“I don’t think he’s trying to distance himself from Trump. What I think he's trying to do is draw that contrast,” Utah Republican Party Chair Carson Jorgensen said.
“He’s stood up for what he believed every time, even when it came to Trump," he added.
Utah is a reliably Republican state, however its religion-infused politics are idiosyncratic. The majority of residents belong to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which places a high value on manners and eschews alcohol, pornography and foul language. Members of the faith lean Republican, yet polling has shown Trump commands less robust support among them than other prominent GOP politicians.
Trump failed to win support from a majority of Utah voters in 2016 and Joe Biden lost but performed better with Utah voters in 2020 than any Democrat since 1964.
Lee's emphasis on his willingness to stray from Trump comes as McMullin attempts to paint him as one of the former president's most loyal disciples. McMullin recently released an attack ad based on Lee's 2020 remarks comparing Trump to Captain Moroni, a scriptural hero in the Book of Mormon.
Monday's debate was McMullin's first chance to directly confront Lee about the text messages he sent to Trump Chief of Staff Mark Meadows in the lead-up to the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, which he's made a centerpiece of his campaign.
The texts show Lee, who Trump has endorsed in the race underway, asking for advice on how to contribute to efforts to challenge the 2020 election results. Lee has defended his actions by saying he merely intended to look into the legal arguments and rumors about swing states putting forth slates of fake electors, noting that he ultimately voted to certify the results.
On Monday, Lee demanded an apology from McMullin and said his version of events exhibited a “cavalier, reckless disregard for the truth."
Though the messages suggest Lee researched the legality of alternate elector slates in the lead-up to Jan. 6, Lee said they showed no evidence that he would have supported such a scheme. He said he wouldn’t have and noted that he voted to certify the election results.
A raucous crowd made up mostly of Lee supporters jeered and booed when McMullin called Lee's actions “a travesty."
“Senator Lee, that was the most egregious betrayal of our nation’s Constitution in its history by a U.S. Senator. I believe it will be your legacy,” McMullin said, wagging his finger at Lee.