Utah Republican Senator Mike Lee and his independent challenger, Evan McMullin, a former CIA officer, met Monday night for their only debate, a largely genteel affair that showed flashes of tension, primarily surrounding the role of Mr. Lee in the bid to see the results of the 2020 election and keep Donald J. Trump in the presidency.
Here are five takeaways from an unusual debate in an unusual Senate race.
January 6 remains the focus.
No race in the country has put events in the spotlight after the 2020 election as much as the Utah Senate race. In part, that’s because Mr. McMullin and Mr. Lee agree on so many other things. But it is mainly because of the prominent role that Mr. Lee played in cheering several attempts to use legal battles to get Mr. keep Trump in power. Much of that cheerleading showed up in text messages the senator sent to White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows.
Mr. McMullin called Mr. Lee’s actions “the most egregious betrayal of our nation’s constitution in its history by a US senator,” adding, “It will be your legacy.”
Mr. Lee eventually voted to confirm President Biden’s election, and he reverted to the language many Republicans have used when asked if the president had been elected fairly. “Joe Biden is our president,” he said. “He was elected in the only election that matters, the Electoral College election.”
But he strongly denied any wrongdoing before voting to certify the election, saying his discussions of a search for “alternative” voters who would deny the election results were merely an exploration of rumors about such voters — rumours, he said, which turned out to be false. He accused Mr McMullin of “an arrogant, reckless disregard for the truth” and demanded an apology.
The advantage of independence.
Mr. McMullin took full advantage of his status as an independent party in a conservative state, by agreeing with his Republican opponent to restrict abortion, by suing Mr. Biden for fueling inflation, and by saying that it White House debt relief program would only exacerbate inflation. And he swore he wouldn’t be a “bootlicker” for Mr. Biden or Mr. Trump.
That struck Mr. Lee’s ear. “The suggestion that I am obligated to either side, that I have been a bootlicker to both parties, is folly,” he protested.
The state of the 2022 midterm elections
Now that the primaries are over, both parties are turning their attention to the general election on November 8.
Mr. McMullin was also free to embrace the most popular elements of Democrats’ achievements, such as allowing Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices.
He portrayed Mr. Lee — largely accurately — as an outlier in the Senate because of his consistent votes against bills, even those with broad bipartisan support, and cast himself as a problem-solver in the mold of the Utahn he hopes to join the bill. Senate, Mitt Romney.
“If we are victorious, Utah will become the most influential state in the country because nothing will get through the Senate without Utah’s support,” said Mr. McMullin.
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But there’s a problem with his vow to be a true independent that wouldn’t confer with either side: If he didn’t take sides at all, he might not be able to get commission assignments, seriously affecting his ability to exert influence. is limited.
Lee cut his rejection of his opponent’s independent bid: “Supporting an opportunistic hornet backed by the Democratic Party could make for an interesting conversation at a dinner party,” he argued, but in such trying times it made no sense. the people of Utah.
Looking for awards on abortion.
In virtually every other contested race this year, the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade has put abortion at the top of the agenda, especially for the Democrat in the race. Utah Senate contest has no Democrat and no candidate for abortion rights.
In conservative Utah, this allowed Lee to openly express his joy at the end of Roe v. Wade and his support for allowing states to decide whether abortion should be legal. “Roe v. Wade,” Mr. Lee said, “was a legal fiction.”
Mr McMullin said he too was “pro-life” and struggled to differentiate himself from his opponent, saying he opposed politicians from the extremes of both parties on the issue, those who would ban all abortions without exceptions. and those who are against all restrictions. But he didn’t say when he thought abortion should be legal or at what point in a pregnancy his opposition to abortion would strike.
Russia, Russia, Russia.
Given Mr McMullin’s CIA background, Russia seemed a fruitful avenue to continue its persecution of Mr. Lee as an extremist outlier, even in right-wing Utah. He said the senator was the only member of Utah’s all-Republican congressional delegation who was not blacklisted by President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, and he denounced Mr. Lee for going to Moscow in 2019 to talk about easing restrictions. some sanctions against the Putin regime.
But Mr. Lee deftly dodged the attack, saying he had gone to Russia at the invitation of the country’s then ambassador to Moscow, Jon Huntsman Jr. – a popular former governor of Utah.
Close the gap? Unlikely.
Mr. McMullin has conducted a surprisingly effective campaign against Mr. Lee in a state that gave Mr. Trump 58 percent of the vote in 2020. But to beat Mr. Lee, he needs the state’s Democrats, most of the Independents, and every disgruntled Republican he can find. And no one knows for sure that such a coalition will get 50 percent of the vote.
It is also not clear that Monday night’s debate will advance Mr McMullin’s case. The crowd was packed with supporters of Mr. Lee, who beats Mr. McMullin, especially around January 6 and the 2020 election, and the incumbent applauded. At times, Mr. McMullin seemed confused that he was failing to gain traction with his most practiced lines of attack, especially his appeals to the Mormon believers whose ancestors “migrated across the plains and the Rockies to attain freedom here.”
“I think of all the men and women, the 14 generations of Americans who sacrificed themselves for this great experiment in freedom,” he said. “They trusted you, we trusted you, and with that confidence and with your knowledge of the Constitution, Senator Lee, you tried to find a weakness in our system” to “overthrow the will of the people.”
But the Utahns Hillary Clinton thought would shy away from Mr Trump’s immorality in 2016 didn’t come to her rescue. And they were even less present for Mr Biden in 2020.
In the end, Mr. Lee had arguably the most effective line of attack, one he often used: Mr. McMullin voted for Mr. Biden.