SALT LAKE CITY — With just 13 days to go until the election, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence touched down in an unusual location for a Republican vice-presidential candidate: Utah, a deeply conservative state that hasn’t voted for a Democrat for president since 1964.
That Pence came here reflected a growing worry that one of the most reliably Republican-voting states, with six electoral votes, has turned into a three-way dogfight involving Republican Donald Trump, Democrat Hillary Clinton and independent conservative candidate Evan McMullin.
“We are all knotted up in Utah, we are all knotted up in America and we’re going to drive it all the way to the finish,” Pence told a rowdy crowd at the Infinity Event Center here.
Since early October, after the release of tapes showing Trump talking crudely about women, influential Republicans from this heavily Mormon state, including Sen. Mike Lee and Rep. Jason Chaffetz, have denounced the nominee and said they’d support someone else. Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee and a Mormon who now lives in Utah, did so months ago.
Neither Lee nor Chaffetz has said who that would be, but McMullin is bidding for the chance. A clutch of recent statewide polls have found Trump’s lead shrinking to single digits, and an internal Democratic poll taken this week in the state’s most competitive congressional district found Trump falling to third place there.
“I’m not helping Donald Trump get elected,” McMullin told MSNBC on Monday during a campaign swing through Wyoming. “Donald Trump is a terrible candidate. Of course, he’s going to have a hard time winning.”
Still, few Republican officeholders have endorsed McMullin. Those who have bolted the ticket have courted backlash from the majority of Republican voters who back it.
“The people who un-endorsed Trump — look, you created this narrative,” James Evans, Utah’s GOP chairman, said in the party’s downtown office. As he spoke, a young volunteer wearing a Mike Lee shirt placed a massive Trump-Pence sign in a window — then, realizing that a reporter was watching, joked about turning the shirt inside out.
On Monday night, in advance of Pence’s visit, dozens of Trump supporters packed a meeting room at Provo’s main library for a “town hall” on the state of the campaign. It had been organized by Easton Brady, Trump’s state campaign director, not yet 20, and it gave pro-Trump Republicans space to vent about the media and the McMullin candidacy.
“It’s Mitt Romney’s fault!” growled Lyman Momeny, a local activist, who said he would be writing in Evans’s name in place of Republicans who un-endorsed Trump. “He wants people to vote for his puppet!”
Nathan Herbert, the son of Utah Gov. Gary R. Herbert (R) — who is on the ballot this year — led some of the discussion and tried to calm nerves about party division. His father, he suggested, was not going to pile on Trump. There was, he insisted, a “moral case” to make for Trump, and no reason for religious voters to be ashamed.
“In these books, and in our scriptures, were men of sin,” said Kimberly Lee, a local activist. “And what did God do? He takes imperfect men, and he helps them to create his will and his way.”
After a series of motivational speakers made the case for Trump, Cheryl Eager, an activist who would be one of Trump’s electors if he won the state, warned Republican voters that stories of Trump treating women badly were manufactured.
“These are coming from Gloria Allred,” Eager said. “She’s a vicious, extreme feminist who uses the Violence Against Women Act and abuses it in court. She drags men into that courtroom; the women are driven to victimhood and blubbering. A big pity party. Then she builds up these very minuscule events into something dramatic. Guess what, men? You get screwed in the court.”
But few Republicans argued that Pence, more than Trump, was the right man to send to Utah. “He’s a man of God,” Brady said. “If he was LDS, he’d be a leader in the church. He evens out all of Donald Trump’s — well, you know what I mean.”
Indeed, in his appearance here, Pence made a clear bid for Utah’s religious conservatives, promising that a Trump administration would pass a federal law that mirrors first-in-the nation legislation passed here requiring women seeking an abortion after 20 weeks gestation to be given painkillers or anesthesia for the fetus. Many doctors have said that a fetus at 20 weeks is not fully developed enough to feel pain.
The Indiana governor also pledged to repeal the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits faith-based and other nonprofit organizations from endorsing political candidates, and he argued that Trump would appoint conservative, pro-life justices to the Supreme Court. He urged people to vote early and bring friends, going so far as to read off the address of the Salt Lake County clerk and let people know it’s a 2.2 mile walk from the venue.
“Let’s get it done Utah, let’s bring it home,” he said at the rally, which was attended by only one elected Utah GOP leader, Speaker of the House Greg Hughes.
Pence also took a shot at McMullin.
“There’s only two people on the ballot that you’re going to cast here in Utah that have any chance of being president,” he said, referring to the two major-party nominees, Trump and Clinton.
The Pence visit did not put the vice-presidential nominee far from more traditional swing states. The Utah stop was just an hour in the air between Reno, Nev., where he started the day, and Colorado Springs, where he was scheduled to end it.
Democrats, happily startled by the opportunity that McMullin’s candidacy has given them, were almost as happy to see Pence. On Tuesday, several leaders of a “Mormons for Hillary” group gathered at the party’s office near the state capitol, explaining why Trump was driving people of faith from the GOP.
“The Republican Party owns Donald Trump as the nominee,” said David Irvine, a retired Republican state legislator who would be voting for Clinton. “They can send Pence. They can try all the shape-shifting they want to try. But they nominated a candidate who has no business being president.”
Katie Zezima in Washington contributed to this report.