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What It Means to Be a Republican Today

Evan McMullin’s lesson on what his former party now stands for—and what it can’t stand.
October 28, 2022
What It Means to Be a Republican Today
Evan McMullin in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images)

The most interesting political race of 2022 isn’t between a Democrat and a Republican. It’s in Utah, where incumbent Republican Sen. Mike Lee faces independent challenger Evan McMullin. McMullin, a nearly lifelong Republican, is conservative on most issues, so Lee can’t beat him with the usual playbook—calling him woke or a tax-and-spender or a socialist. By neutralizing the GOP’s favorite lines of attack, McMullin has reduced the race to one crucial difference between the candidates: Lee’s complicity in Donald Trump’s schemes to undo the 2020 election.

The Lee-McMullin race poses a difficult question: What exactly does the GOP stand for? Why should voters support a Republican senator against an opponent who agrees with him on policy but not on subverting democracy? If economic, moral, and foreign-policy conservatism no longer define the party, what does? What does it mean to be a Republican in 2022, beyond conspiring—or defending others who have conspired—to overturn elections when your party doesn’t win?

McMullin is discovering that there are answers to that question. And they’re ugly.

Utah is an overwhelmingly Republican state, and McMullin has promised that if he goes to the Senate, he won’t caucus with either party. For these reasons, the Utah Democratic Party chose to endorse him rather than field its own nominee. The idea was to narrow the field to two candidates, allowing McMullin—who got 27 percent of the Republican vote in Utah when he ran for president against Trump and Hillary Clinton in 2016—to consolidate support from Democrats, independents, and principled Republicans. By and large, the bet has paid off. McMullin is polling within a few points of Lee, with many voters still undecided.

Despite this alliance, McMullin is openly conservative. In interviews and campaign appearances, he talks about his years working in the Republican trenches, first as a national security adviser to House Republicans from 2013 to 2015, and then as chief policy director for the House Republican Conference from 2015 to 2016. He praises Utah’s Republican governor, Spencer Cox. He says he’d rather have Mitt Romney than Joe Biden as president.

Last week, in a televised debate with Lee, McMullin blamed inflation in part on Biden’s “reckless spending.” He also criticized Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan as too broad and inflationary. On Thursday, McMullin told MSNBC it was time to “get our fiscal house in order.” In other interviews, he has rejected the Democrats’ Inflation Reduction Act (“I don’t think it did much to actually reduce inflation”), blasted Biden’s handling of the Afghan withdrawal (“a total disaster”), chided Biden and his predecessors for failing to deter the invasion of Ukraine (“We were just too slow”), and rebuffed the left’s talk of packing the Supreme Court (“the Court will lose all legitimacy”).

Often, McMullin rebukes Lee from the right, exposing the senator’s betrayals of conservative principles. In the debate, he raked Lee for going along with Trump’s explosion of the federal debt. He also noted Lee’s opposition to sanctions against Russia. And on Thursday, he chastised the senator for campaigning with former Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, a “Putin apologist.”

On abortion, McMullin is pro-life but practical. He rejects most abortion bans as divisive and dangerous, but he also opposes unlimited late-term abortion, and he speaks unapologetically about “the unborn” and “the sanctity of life.” He focuses not on passing legislation to outlaw the procedure—he regards most such bills as partisan “messaging” devices—but on reducing the abortion rate itself. According to “the data,” he argues, “the clear answer to overcoming the core challenge—which is unwanted pregnancies and women finding themselves in impossible situations—is actually increasing access to contraception.” By providing birth control, supporting pregnant women, and improving sex education—including “imparting the right values to our youth”—he aims to reduce the abortion rate voluntarily.

Having neutralized these issues, McMullin focuses on Lee’s sycophantic relationship with Trump, particularly the senator’s role in the scheme to recruit fake electors after the 2020 election. McMullin cites text messages shortly before Jan. 6, 2021, in which Lee bragged about “calling state legislators for hours” and “spending 14 hours a day . . . trying to unravel this for” Trump. “I’m trying to figure out a path that I can persuasively defend,” Lee told Trump’s then-chief of staff, Mark Meadows, in one text.

In their debate, McMullin excoriated Lee for this treachery. “You sought to urge the White House that had lost an election to find fake electors to overturn the will of the people,” he told Lee. “That was the most egregious betrayal of our nation’s Constitution in its history by a senator.”

Faced with this unorthodox challenge, Lee has responded awkwardly. As to the fake-electors scheme, he has simply lied. He claims that in his phone calls to states prior to Jan. 6, he was only “investigating” whether states were preparing alternate electors, not “advocating” that idea, even though the texts show him bragging about seeking such a path. In the debate, he asserted with a straight face that “there’s not a scintilla of evidence” that he “ever did support a fake-electors plot.” Either he was lying to Meadows and Trump in 2021, or he’s lying today.

Meanwhile, Lee calls McMullin a “Democrat running in disguise.” In the debate, he pointed out that McMullin had raised a lot of money through ActBlue—a fundraising platform frequented, in Lee’s words, by “far-left, progressive, socialist Democratic donors.” Lee also pointed out that McMullin had spent money on consultants who work for Democrats. And he rebuked McMullin for having “actively courted and obtained the endorsement of the Democratic party.”

What’s notable about these complaints is their pure partisanship. They’re about McMullin’s associations, not about issues. Lee talks about the Democratic party the way red-baiters used to talk about the Communist party: Any association with it is suspect. It’s true that McMullin courts Democratic voters and donors, along with independent and Republican voters and donors. That’s the whole point: McMullin is campaigning on unity. But to Lee, the Republican voters and donors are irrelevant. Consorting with Democrats, per se, is forbidden.

In prosecuting this case, Lee has teamed up with Fox News host Tucker Carlson. On Oct. 11, Lee went on Carlson’s show to call McMullin a “closeted Democrat” and to castigate Romney, Utah’s other senator, for refusing to endorse Lee. Lee complained that reporters were “refusing to ask [McMullin] policy questions,” but not once did Lee mention any policy on which McMullin agreed with Democrats. Instead, Lee nodded along as Carlson accused McMullin of courting donors who “hate” “religious people with families.” Carlson asked the senator, “Do you think your voters get that?” And Lee, embracing the smear, replied: “No, I don’t.” Later, when Carlson condemned Romney for having “marched with Black Lives Matter,” Lee said nothing.

Last Friday, in his opening monologue, Carlson went after McMullin again. The first thing he did was insinuate that McMullin was gay. He said the candidate, who married a woman last year, had run against Trump in 2016, when “he was 40 years old, never married, and very obviously odd. Very odd.” In case anyone didn’t get the message, Carlson repeatedly likened McMullin to Pete Buttigieg.

Then Carlson mocked the idea that McMullin shared Republican “values.” He asked viewers: “Really? Which values are those? Does Evan McMullin oppose amnesty for illegal migrants? Does he oppose race-crazed teachers’ unions? Does he oppose even Tony Fauci? No, of course not.” This list seemed to comprise, in Carlson’s mind, the GOP’s core issues: race, immigration, and COVID fanaticism.

Carlson went on to clarify what he viewed, conversely, as core Democratic ideas. He ridiculed McMullin for having declared, “You aren’t actually pro-life if you can’t say black lives matter.” That statement, said Carlson, exposed McMullin as “a liberal Democrat.” Later, Carlson played a video of McMullin saying, “There is an element of the Republican base that is racist.” Carlson called that acknowledgment one of the “talking points [McMullin] gets from his handlers in the Democratic party.”

Even McMullin’s signature issue, accepting election results, is proof of his apostasy, according to Carlson. The Fox host showed a clip of McMullin saying that on Jan. 6, “a majority of House Republicans” voted “to overturn the results of the election.” Carlson called that a “stupid Democratic buzz phrase.” “No one voted to overturn the results of the election,” Carlson insisted. Republicans had merely “objected to the certification of the results pending an audit.”

Lee and Carlson are lying. Lee’s text messages show his extensive efforts, prior to Jan. 6, to find a way to replace Biden electors with Trump electors. And contrary to Carlson’s denial, most House Republicans did vote to overturn the election on Jan. 6. States had already reviewed and certified their results. The Electoral College had voted. The whole point of objecting to the electoral votes at that stage, two weeks before Inauguration Day, was, as numerous lawmakers admitted, to reverse the outcome.

But what’s more dismaying in the smears against McMullin is the moral emptiness of today’s GOP. A candidate who’s conservative on spending, values, and national security is under attack for courting Democrats, having been unmarried in his thirties, refusing to vilify Dr. Fauci, affirming that black lives matter, and acknowledging that House Republicans tried to overturn the last election. In 2022, these are the taboos that define the Republican party. Win or lose, McMullin has exposed them.

William Saletan

William Saletan is a writer at The Bulwark.