Opinion writer

Evan McMullin (Photo from handout video from University of Pennsylvania)

As a deep-red state, Utah has not voted for someone other than the Republican presidential nominee since 1964. It’s among the least competitive states, especially at the presidential level. Presidential candidates naturally don’t bother going there or spending much money. Until this year.

The Post reports:

A poll conducted by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee here finds Donald Trump running third in Utah’s least Republican district, and independent conservative presidential candidate Evan McMullin leaping into first place.

The poll, released Monday by Democrats trying to win Utah’s 4th district, was based on interviews with 478 voters on Oct. 20. In it, Democrat Doug Owens trailed Rep. Mia Love (R-Utah) by 8 points — a larger deficit than he faced when he lost to Love in 2014, but enough for the party to continue contesting the seat. But the rest of the survey found Trump at just 21 percent in the district, as McMullin and Hillary Clinton tied at 29 percent.

This is consistent with other recent polling showing McMullin either statistically tied or slightly ahead of Trump. With about 25 percent of the vote going to McMullin, Clinton now thinks she has a shot at the race. She is increasing staff and surrogate visits in the state. Things have gotten so desperate for Trump that he reportedly is dispatching his vice-presidential pick, Mike Pence, to go to Utah. This would be like Clinton sending in Tim Kaine to try to “rescue” California.

It is no longer a stretch to say that an independent candidate is the favorite to win a state in presidential election, the first time since 1968. It is even more extraordinary when you consider there is no single galvanizing issue for McMullin as there was for George Wallace (civil rights). McMullin has a campaign with little money, more akin to a neighborhood block party in which many people chip in without direction from on high than to the slick, professional presidential campaigns we are used to seeing.

McMullin’s Mormon connection in Utah or some other Western states is part of the equation. (“In no small part, support for McMullin in Utah and a handful of other western states stems from his Mormon faith, but many members of the Church of Latter Day Saints also say he’s the only candidate on the ballot who shares their political vision,” Bloomberg reports.) Nevertheless, it’s a shocking sign of Trump’s limited appeal that Utah is now a toss-up state.

McMullin’s effort is about sending a message, several actually. In no particular order, these would include:

  • The GOP is politically and morally spent. If you cannot win Utah …
  • Character matters. A candidate whose character is as flawed as Trump’s and who evidences virtually every negative quality (e.g. dishonesty, narcissism, cruelty, disloyalty, greed) cannot be expected to win among Republicans for whom public character is critical.
  • “Values” mean something more than one’s position on gay marriage. In contrast to evangelical snake-oil salesmen peddling Trump, the people of Utah know that without fundamental decency, candor, kindness and empathy, a candidate’s promises and stated positions mean nothing.
  • It’s acceptable to vote for the candidate you like the most. We have gotten so distracted by a “vote for X is really a vote for Y” arguments or the arguments over which is the lesser of two evils, one easily can forget that the selection of a president is also a statement of each voter’s values. Am I a tolerant person? Am I concerned about public civility? We’ve heard the remark that “I could not tell my kids I voted for X.” This is where that sense of personal rectitude comes into play.
  • We can do better than the GOP. Every American alive today has grown up in a two-party political culture with, since the Civil War, the same two parties. That makes it hard to imagine something completely new — either a replacement to or an addition to the existing Republican Party. Here is an intelligent conservative who rejects the populist siren call. He rejects nativism, xenophobia, isolationism, conspiratorialism and irrationality. He thinks demonizing foreigners and stereotyping Americans are reprehensible. Hey, he could be on to something!

A center-right reform movement dedicated to limited but vigorous government (that maximizes opportunity for all), insistent on decent character and behavior from its elected officials and supportive of strong international leadership needs a vehicle if the GOP remains the captive of populist know-nothings. McMullin may have started one.