By Devan Cole, CNN
The Utah Democratic Party on Saturday threw its support behind the independent candidacy of former presidential contender Evan McMullin to take on GOP Sen. Mike Lee.
The decision to get behind McMullin could help bolster his Senate bid at a time when Lee is on the defensive over newly revealed text messages showing he communicated for weeks with then-White House chief of staff Mark Meadows about the effort to overturn the 2020 election.
Party delegates voted 57% to 43% Saturday at their convention in Murray, Utah, to not nominate a candidate of their own. Former State Department official Kael Weston had been seeking the Democratic endorsement for US Senate.
“Today Utah Democrats voted to join Evan McMullin’s cross-partisan coalition and not to nominate a candidate into the 2022 midterm US Senate race,” McMullin’s campaign said in a statement Saturday. “This marks the first time in Utah’s history that the Democratic Party has not put forward a candidate for a statewide race choosing instead to put country over party.”
Weston said he respected the decision. “Let’s all help get other Democrats elected this year. And let’s all help defeat Mike Lee — the sooner the better,” he said on Twitter.
Lee, who is seeking a third term in November, remains the favorite in deep-red Utah, which backed then-President Donald Trump by over 20 points in 2020. Democrats have not won a US Senate election in Utah since 1970.
Lee also has a strong cash-on-hand advantage over McMullin, according to their most recent filings with the Federal Election Commission. The senator faces a June primary against two Republicans, former state Rep. Becky Edwards and former state government official Ally Isom, who qualified for the ballot by submitting the required number of signatures.
McMullin, a former CIA officer and onetime House GOP aide, ran for president in 2016 as an anti-Trump conservative. While he got less than 1% of the popular vote, his candidacy earned about 22% of the vote in Utah, his best showing of any state.
“I’m humbled and grateful to the Democratic delegates today for their decision to support this growing cross-partisan coalition,” McMullin said Saturday. “Today, and moving forward, this coalition represents a majority of Utahns who want to replace Senator Mike Lee. He is a threat to the republic and consistently fails to represent our interests and our values.”
Former Utah Rep. Ben McAdams, who lost reelection in 2020 after serving one term, was among the state Democrats actively engaged in trying to get his party to not nominate a candidate at the convention. He wrote in a Facebook post on Sunday that he was “proud to be part of Evan’s growing coalition of independents, Democrats and Republicans. Together we can win this race and defeat Senator Mike Lee.”
McAdams had looked at running for the Senate seat himself, but he said he ultimately decided against it after seeing his own polling on how hard it would be to win as a Democrat in a longtime Republican state.
CNN reported earlier this month that texts between Lee and Meadows show a series of communications beginning just days after the 2020 election in which Lee initially expressed support for challenging the election results. In early December 2020, the senator began texting Meadows about the idea that states could submit alternate slates of pro-Trump electors to Congress on January 6, 2021.
But in statements since the insurrection, Lee has given the impression that he was simply monitoring activity from states, as opposed to promoting the idea of separate electors to Meadows.
In an interview last week with the Utah-based Deseret News, Lee defended himself and attempted to dismiss the narrative that he was working to overturn the election or that he was working on behalf of the White House. “At no point in any of those was I engaging in advocacy,” Lee said in reference to calls he made to states about whether they were submitting alternate slates of electors.
“I wasn’t in any way encouraging them to do that. I just asked them a yes or no question,” he told the Deseret News.
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CNN’s Dan Merica, Annie Grayer and Lauren Fox contributed this report.