U.S. Sen. Mike Lee is seeking reelection in Utah – a typically uneventful undertaking for an incumbent Republican in a state that hasn’t had a Democratic senator since 1977. But he faces a unique challenger: Evan McMullin.
The former CIA operative, investment banker and Republican policy adviser left the GOP in 2016 because of Donald Trump. McMullin then ran for president as an independent, styling himself as a principled conservative, and won 21% of Utahans’ votes.
Lee himself voted for McMullin in 2016, saying Trump was “wildly unpopular” in Utah because of “religiously intolerant” statements about Muslims. Some 62% of the state’s residents belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which has its own history of suffering persecution. Yet Lee embraced Trump after his election, and now McMullin is trying to upend him.
Both men are devoted members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, often known as the Mormon church or the LDS church. As a scholar of U.S. elections and author of two books on LDS politics, I see their November face-off as part of a larger fight over what it means to be a “character conservative.” This battle has been raging around the country, not only in Utah; but LDS voters have become an especially interesting example since Trump’s rise.
Road to acceptance
Over two centuries, Latter-day Saints have transformed themselves from among the most persecuted religious groups in U.S. history to a global religion of almost 17 million members, by their own count, with an estimated US$100 billion in resources.
Politics has always been woven into this history. Early Latter-day Saints were forced gradually westward from state to state because of neighbors’ distrust, mob justice and government oppression – most notably, an extermination order was issued by the state of Missouri in 1838. The church ultimately fled the U.S. after founder Joseph Smith was killed and settled around Salt Lake, which was a Mexican territory when church members first arrived.
Utah was granted statehood in 1896, and the Senate provided a building block for increased LDS immersion into American culture – though it didn’t look that way at first. In the early 1900s, the church was so widely reviled that Sen.-elect Reed Smoot was blocked from taking his seat over accusations that his role in the church made him inherently hostile to the government.
Yet Smoot was exonerated, and his three-decade tenure significantly enhanced the church’s acceptance in national politics. The soft-spoken senator became a leading voice of conservative morality and embodiment of Mormonism in wider American culture, replacing Brigham Young, the bearded patriarch with multiple wives.
LDS ascendance throughout the 20th century culminated in Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential nomination and wider cultural attention dubbed “the Mormon moment.” Some LDS beliefs and practices – such as the teaching that Smith discovered scripture on golden plates buried in upstate New York – have long generated curiosity, if not derision, from other Americans. Many Latter-day Saints and observers felt Romney’s nomination suggested greater acceptance of the religion.
In particular, LDS conservatives have become political allies with white evangelicals when it comes to social issues such as opposing gay marriage. In popular culture, Latter-day Saints are often seen as the embodiment of 1950s conservative Americana. LDS cultural norms such as patriotism, abstinence from tobacco and alcohol and prioritizing child rearing, family life and devotion to service have forged a conception of character widely embraced by conservatives.
This all helped position Latter-day Saints as a small but influential group within the Christian right.
And then Trump decided to run for president.
An inconvenient candidate
Trump galvanized parts of the Republican Party. Yet conservatives were divided over the candidate’s character – especially his unorthodox attacks on primary rivals and former GOP presidential candidates, the “Access Hollywood” video in which he bragged about groping women, and numerous allegations of sexual assault.
Latter-day Saints are the most Republican religious group in the country, making them a particularly interesting case study of character conservatism. Trump’s overlap with the LDS community “starts and stops” with his GOP affiliation, as Brigham Young University political scientist Quin Monson told the Los Angeles Times in 2016.
Romney thoroughly criticized Trump and encouraged Republicans to vote for any other primary candidate. Grounded in his LDS faith, which prioritizes family on Earth and for eternity, Romney urged Utahans: “Think of Donald Trump’s personal qualities. The bullying, the greed, the showing off, the misogyny, the absurd third-grade theatrics. … Imagine your children and your grandchildren acting the way he does.”
When McMullin ran in 2016, Trump still won Utah, but with 45% – the lowest for a Republican nominee there since 1992. Nationwide, just over 50% of Latter-day Saints voted for Trump in 2016, almost 30 percentage points lower than white evangelicals. The second time around, he won over 60% of the LDS vote, but most church members who are people of color or are under 40 did not vote for him.
Jan. 6, 2021, was a pivotal moment for the Trump presidency and character conservatives. Half of Republicans believed Trump bore at least some responsibility for what happened. Voters’ disapproval was compounded by further activities, such as Trump’s trying to overturn the 2020 election and taking highly classified documents. Still, GOP candidates face strategic pressure to pledge allegiance to Trump: The Republican National Committee, for example, has directed millions of dollars to his legal defense.
Character conservatives are reckoning with two different impulses. Trump is not a role model, but he has demonstrated willingness to fight for some religious-conservative values, such as reconfiguring the Supreme Court to enable the overturning of Roe v. Wade. Some character conservatives support Trump, believing the ends justify means. Others reject Trump’s behavior as immoral and unacceptable for democracy – and the majority are probably somewhere in the middle.
The Utah Senate contest will provide some clarity to these countervailing trends. Lee has previously compared Trump with Captain Moroni, a hero from LDS scripture. McMullin, meanwhile, contends that Lee’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election results were “brazen treachery.”
Independent polling has Lee and McMullin in a virtual tie. Incumbency advantage is powerful, but Utah’s Democratic Party has uncharacteristically decided to support McMullin rather than field its own candidate.
The character divide between Trump-supporting candidates and McMullin questions the extent to which LDS values and the carefully crafted public identity of the church can be disentangled from the modern Republican Party. Lee remains the favorite, but the fact that this is a competitive race speaks to how ongoing concerns continue to trouble the former president’s party, even in deeply red Utah.