OREM, Utah (AP) — To fend off attacks from his independent challenger, U.S. Sen. Mike Lee of Utah worked to distance himself from former President Donald Trump in a contentious debate Monday night.
“I stood against my party time and time again to oppose wanton consumption. I will do it again and again and again. We need people who say no,” said the second-term Republican.
Lee repeatedly pointed to his voting record, twice telling the crowd 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 am dependent on both parties, that I have been a bootleg player for both parties, is foolishness. And it is contradicted by the plain facts,” Lee said.
Lee faces a challenge from Evan McMullin, a former Republican best known for his long-shot bid for president six years ago, when as an independent he won 21.5% of Utah voters, 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 attempt to distinguish Trump reflects the peculiar dynamic emerging in Utah this election cycle. In the red state primary race, one candidate is running as an independent and the other is trying 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 trying to capitalize on the anti-Trump sentiment that has separated Utah from other Republican strongholds. Lee’s last-minute efforts to put space between his voting record and Trump’s positions diverge from his previous messages 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,” said Utah Republican Party Chairman Carson Jorgensen.
“He has stood up for what he believed every time, even when it came to Trump,” he added.
Utah is a reliably Republican state, but its religious politics are idiosyncratic. The majority of residents belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which values manners and avoids alcohol, pornography and foul language. Members of the faith lean Republican, but polls have shown Trump has less robust support among them than other prominent GOP politicians.
Trump failed to win the support of a majority of Utah voters in 2016, and Joe Biden lost but did better with Utah voters in 2020 than any Democrat since 1964.
Lee’s emphasis on his willingness to diverge from Trump comes as McMullin tries 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 Book of Mormon hero.
Monday’s debate was McMullin’s first chance to directly confront Lee about the text messages he sent to Trump’s chief of staff Mark Meadows in the run-up to the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the US Capitol, which he has made a central element of his campaign. .
The texts show Lee, who Trump has endorsed in the ongoing race, asking for advice on how to contribute to efforts to challenge the election results in 2020. Lee has defended his actions by saying he merely intended to investigate the legal arguments and rumors about swing states presenting lists of fraudulent voters, noting that he ultimately voted to confirm the results.
On Monday, Lee demanded an apology from McMullin, saying his version of events displayed a “cavalier, reckless disregard for the truth.”
Although the messages suggest that Lee was investigating the legality of alternative electoral lists in the run-up to January 6, Lee said they showed no evidence that he would have supported such an arrangement. He said he didn’t want it, noting that he voted to confirm the election results.
A raucous crowd of mostly Lee supporters jeered and booed as McMullin called Lee’s actions “a travesty.”
“Senator Lee, that was the most horrific betrayal of our nation’s constitution in its history by a United States senator. I think that will be your legacy,” McMullin said, wagging his finger at Lee.