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The Evan McMullin impact on the 2022 Senate battle

Evan McMullin in 2016 in Salt Lake City. (Weston Kenney/Deseret News/AP)
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In a 2016 presidential election that featured plenty of, well, unusual dynamics, one of the most interesting was in Utah. Home-state candidate Evan McMullin pulled 21.5 percent of the vote there, the best showing for an independent presidential candidate in any state since Ross Perot in 1992. His status on the ballot also put at least a little fear in the Trump campaign that he might cost it ruby-red state’s six electoral votes.

McMullin on Tuesday announced the next phase of his political career — running as an independent against Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) in 2022.

But how significant could his campaign be? And could it matter in a close battle for what is now a 50-50 Senate?

McMullin’s showing in Utah in 2016 was unusually successful, but those unusual dynamics played a significant role. Chief among them was how much the state’s conservative Mormon population just didn’t like Donald Trump. Some polls even showed Utah voters liked Hillary Clinton better than Trump. McMullin, a former CIA officer, a former Republican and a Mormon from the state, provided a ready-made alternative.

As I wrote at the time about a Monmouth University poll:

Among non-Mormons, Trump runs about as well as the other Republicans on the ballot this year. Gov. Gary R. Herbert trails among non-Mormons by 10 points, and Sen. Mike Lee trails among them by 17. Trump's deficit, meanwhile, is 21 points.
Among just Mormons, though, Trump takes 38 percent of the vote, while Herbert takes 80 percent and Lee takes 79 percent.

It didn’t ultimately matter, with Trump taking 45.5 percent of the vote to Clinton’s 27.5 percent and McMullin’s 21.5 percent. But it was the GOP’s worst showing in Utah since 1992 (when, as it happens, Perot finished second).

The question for McMullin and his new Senate campaign is how much his relatively good showing was due to his own appeal to Utah voters rather than him merely being a capable alternative to a candidate that Mormon Republicans really didn’t like.

The other side of the coin is the fact that the final results might have actually undersold the true level of support for McMullin. That’s because polling late in the game generally showed him doing even better than the 21.5 percent he ultimately took — with numbers often in the mid-to-high 20s. This is something we see frequently with third-party candidates: Voters might like them, but their support tends to fall off at the end when it’s clear the election is going to come down to a Republican or a Democrat, with voters wanting to pick the winner.

Those dynamics could be somewhat different in Utah’s Senate race — but with a similar overarching question.

A big factor for McMullin, for instance, is just how much of a contender Democrats decide to put forward. Lee isn’t overwhelmingly popular with the state’s voters, with recent polls showing his approval rating in the mid-40s. But this is also a state in which Democrats can’t really compete statewide.

If McMullin is ultimately viewed by voters, and especially Republicans, as mostly a potential spoiler for their party in a Lee-vs.-a-Democrat race, the hill will be significantly higher.

But there is also the possibility that Democrats effectively pave the way for their voters to support McMullin, knowing a Democrat stands next to no chance. There is some recent precedent for this — and even for this working.

Democrats effectively abandoned their nominee in the 2012 Senate race in Maine, lining up behind Angus King, an independent who now caucuses with the Democrats.

In the 2014 Alaska gubernatorial race, Democratic nominee Byron Mallott abandoned his campaign and ran as independent candidate Bill Walker’s running mate, with Walker defeating then-Gov. Sean Parnell (R).

The Democrat in the 2014 Senate race in Kansas also bowed out, leaving independent Greg Orman as the effective standard-bearer against Sen. Pat Roberts (R), who still won but with his smallest share of the vote (53 percent) ever.

Alaska Democrats were unable to repeat the trick in the 2020 Senate race, with independent Al Gross falling to Sen. Dan Sullivan (R) by 13 points.

It seems obvious that backing McMullin is perhaps Democrats’ best chance to get someone not named Mike Lee in the Senate seat, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be difficult — especially in very red Utah.

The fact that the Senate is 50-50 means voters will be made well aware of what a Lee defeat might mean for control of the Senate. And if the race is even close, McMullin will face pressure to declare which party he would caucus with. Choosing the Democrats would make the GOP’s case for voting against McMullin; choosing the Republicans would effectively negate any benefit to Democrats for supporting him.

So, just as in 2016, it might not ultimately matter. But just like then, that doesn’t mean it’s not worth paying attention to, given the fine margins involved.