Updated at 12:30 p.m. ET on November 13, 2021.
For many Utahns, the Trump rally was the breaking point. A few days before the 2020 election, Senator Mike Lee paced across a red, white, and blue stage in Goodyear, Arizona, microphone in hand, rhapsodizing about the president’s many virtues while he looked on. Lee’s talking points were mostly familiar. But then he arrived at a novel line of flattery, pitched to his coreligionists: He compared Trump to a figure from the Book of Mormon.
“To my Mormon friends, my Latter-day Saint friends, think of him as Captain Moroni,” Lee bellowed, pointing to the president. “He seeks not power, but to pull it down. He seeks not the praise of the world or the fake news, but he seeks the well-being and the peace of the American people.”
The backlash was swift. Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints aren’t used to seeing their sacred texts so brazenly politicized on the stump, and many members—including even some Donald Trump voters—regarded the invocation of a scriptural hero at a MAGA rally as blasphemous. Lee’s social-media feeds lit up with outraged constituents, the national media piled on, and the senator hastily backpedaled, apologizing to those he’d offended. But among an influential contingent of political, business, and religious leaders in Utah, the episode surfaced long-simmering frustrations with the senator.
First elected in the Tea Party wave of 2010, Lee has long rankled the local establishment in Utah, where he is viewed by many as a showboating obstructionist whose penchant for provocation routinely embarrasses his home state and its predominant religion. Lee’s MAGA makeover during the Trump presidency served only to exacerbate that perception. Now, as he prepares to run for reelection next year, Lee is bracing for a concerted, multifront campaign to unseat him. He seems to know that a third term isn’t guaranteed.
“I’m taking nothing for granted,” Lee told me in a phone interview last week. “I’m gearing up, I’m preparing in every way, and we’ll be ready for whatever comes our way.” This is the posture that incumbents are supposed to take in election years. There is nothing voters hate more, after all, than a politician who acts like he doesn’t need to court them. But Lee also sounded genuinely cautious when we spoke—like a man fearful of making any false moves.
Although Lee’s incumbency carries a degree of front–runner status, his approval rating sits at a meager 45 percent, according to a recent poll, and barely half of likely GOP primary voters say they’d vote for him again. In recent conversations with people around Utah, a range of politicians and operatives working to defeat Lee told me that he’s managed to coast through his first two terms, and insist that he isn’t invincible. “You have to remember,” said one political consultant, who requested anonymity to discuss strategy, “this guy hasn’t faced a serious challenger since he won the Republican nomination in June 2010.”
Lee has already attracted two well-funded primary opponents, as well as an independent, Evan McMullin—last seen running for president in 2016—who is framing his Senate candidacy explicitly as a bid to take down the incumbent. Opposition research is being assembled; lines of attack are being poll-tested. Two people familiar with the research told me that the “Captain Moroni” incident appears to be especially effective in swaying voters—but it’s not the only part of Lee’s record that his opponents plan to highlight in the coming months.
Lee’s relationship with Trump is likely to feature heavily in next year’s race. Although Utah is overwhelmingly conservative, its Mormon-infused politics are idiosyncratic. Trump, with his signature blend of nativism and xenophobia and his less-than-saintly personal life, has consistently underperformed in Utah. He finished last in the state’s 2016 GOP primary, and carried Utah in the general election with a paltry plurality of the vote. Lee loudly protested Trump’s nomination from the floor of the Republican National Convention that year, and sharply criticized him after the Access Hollywood tape was released. But by 2020, Lee had reversed himself completely, campaigning with Trump and defending the president’s role in inciting a riot at the Capitol on January 6. Trump, Lee reasoned after the attempted insurrection, deserved a “mulligan.” (Lee has said that his comment, made during an interview with Fox News, was intended to refer to Democratic politicians who had used incendiary rhetoric.)
To Lee’s critics, the pivot reeked of careerism. But he insists that his evolution was organic. Lee told me his opposition to Trump in 2016 was “related to friends of mine who ran for president and experiences they had in that race.” He also questioned the candidate’s conservative bona fides. But once Trump got to Washington, Lee says, the two men developed “a working relationship,” working together to pass a criminal-justice-reform bill that had long been a priority for the senator. “It’s easy to dislike somebody from afar,” Lee told me. “When you get to know them, sometimes you dislike them less.” He noted that many of his fellow Utahns had followed a similar trajectory: Trump won 58 percent of the vote in Utah last year.
But the fact that Lee flip-flopped on Trump isn’t the real source of establishment frustration in Utah—it’s how he’s helped to import MAGA-style politics to the state. Notably, Lee has picked several fights in recent years that appear to put him in conflict with his church. In 2019, when the Church endorsed the Fairness for All Act—a bill intended to balance LGBTQ rights and religious freedom—Lee deemed it hostile to the First Amendment and announced that he would “actively oppose it.” Last year, he waged a strange, weeks-long crusade on Facebook against a Church-owned local news outlet, which he accused of anti-Trump bias. And more recently, as Church leaders have pleaded with its members to get vaccinated against COVID-19, Lee has prioritized railing against vaccine mandates and introducing bills with names like the “Don’t Jab Me” Act.
The Church maintains a strict policy of electoral neutrality, and its senior leaders do not publicly support or oppose candidates. But the appearance of tension between Utah’s senior senator and the Church has been a subject of intense speculation in some quarters. At the very least, critics argue, Lee has demonstrated a willingness to gratuitously needle the Church to enhance his own stature in the national conservative firmament. These episodes also run against a strain of the state’s political culture, which prizes cooperation and comity and being a “team player.”
When I asked Lee about this line of criticism, he told me that his constituents expect him to defy establishment consensus sometimes. “I think it’s part of the job,” he said. “It’s certainly part of the job as I think it needs to be done.”
That claim to the principled-outsider mantle is what helped Lee defeat Senator Bob Bennett, Utah’s long-serving incumbent, in the 2010 Republican primary. This time around, Lee’s GOP challengers plan to use a similar playbook against him. Ally Isom, a former spokesperson for the Church, has pitched her candidacy as an antidote to Lee’s divisiveness. Becky Edwards, a moderate former state legislator, is arguing that Lee’s “strident approach” has prevented him from delivering for his constituents. Neither candidate has risen above single digits in early polling, but they have both proved to be able fundraisers.
If Lee does win the GOP nomination, he will still have to face McMullin in the general. A former CIA officer and Capitol Hill staffer, McMullin ran for president as an independent in 2016 under the “Never Trump” banner and wound up winning 21 percent of the vote in Utah. To beat Lee next year, McMullin told me, he will need to unite Democrats, independents, and Trump-averse Republicans. His platform will necessarily be a balancing act, mixing environmentalism with pledges to reduce the national debt. But when we spoke, he seemed most animated by loftier themes, such as protecting democratic norms. He repeatedly accused Lee of enabling Trump’s effort to subvert the 2020 election process. (Lee, unlike Utah’s other Republican senator, Mitt Romney, voted to acquit Trump for his role in the Capitol riot and opposed the formation of the January 6 commission.)
“I just think Mike Lee has lost his way in Washington,” he told me. “I like to believe he went there as a principled constitutional conservative, but if you aid and abet an effort to overturn the republic, you can no longer claim to be that.”
For McMullin to have any shot as an independent, Utah Democrats would have to coalesce behind him and decline to put forward a nominee of their own. While some prospective candidates have already emerged, Utah’s unique convention system could allow the party’s delegates to choose not to nominate anyone. McMullin, who has been laboring behind the scenes to win the support of the state Democratic Party, told me he still has work to do in building the “cross-party coalition” he envisions. But the effort got a big boost this week when Ben McAdams, a former congressman and one of Utah’s most prominent Democrats, endorsed McMullin and urged the party to support him.
“What I know is that a Democrat is not going to win the U.S. Senate race [in Utah] in 2022,” McAdams told me. “I also know that I’m not going to support every position that Evan takes. But I think it’s a critical time in our country, our politics are severely broken, and what have we got to lose by trying something new?”
For now, the credibility of McMullin’s campaign remains an open question in Utah. LaVarr Webb, a Republican lobbyist in the state, told me that the candidate would have to shake perceptions that he is a “professional Trump hater.” (McMullin turned up frequently on cable news during the Trump years to criticize the president and his party.) “Progressives in Salt Lake City like him, but he is mostly ignored in the rest of the state,” Webb said. McMullin will also likely face questions from both sides about how much he would diverge from Lee’s solidly conservative voting record. McMullin told me he would not caucus with either party if elected, and argued that maintaining his independence would allow him to wield more power on behalf of Utahns.
As for Lee, he wants voters to believe that he is not sweating. When I asked him about McMullin, he responded coolly. “If he wants to run for the United States Senate, it’s his prerogative to do so,” the senator said. “He’s a citizen of this country, a resident of Utah apparently, and constitutionally eligible to run for that position.”