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Friday, April 29, 2022

Three Reasons Why Evan McMullin Might Not be Greg Orman

[This is an expanded, more contexualized version of a piece which appeared in The Salt Lake Tribune this weekend.]

What does Evan McMullin's independent race for the U.S. Senate in Utah in 2022 have to do with Greg Orman's independent race for the U.S. Senate in Kansas in 2014? Hopefully, not much.

This past weekend, the Utah Democratic party--or rather, the delegates in attendance at their election-year convention--decided (by a vote of 57% to 43%) to not nominate Kael Weston, their own presumptive candidate for the upcoming Senate race against Mike Lee, and instead to throw the support of the party behind independent senatorial candidate and famed Never-Trumper Republican and former independent presidential candidate McMullin. Why? Because it's Utah in 2022, and unless someone who can win a large number of Republican votes runs against Mike Lee, his re-election is basically assured. Hence, in choosing to support a candidate who isn't a member of their party and who obviously rejects a significant portion of the Utah Democratic party platform, Utah's Democratic party leadership are charting a surprising path, one that Jennifer Rubin praised in The Washington Post as an attempt to build a "cross-partisan, cross-ideological alliance to defeat MAGA authoritarians who put Trump above country and their ideology above democracy," and thus provide a "model for democratic triage" going forward.

The thing is, this has happened before, as the tiny handful of political observers who care about both Kansas and Utah well know. In 2014, Kansas, which hasn't elected a non-Republican to one of its U.S. Senate seats since 1932 (compare that to Utah, which elected a Democrat to the Senate as recently as 1970!), had a choice between Pat Roberts, an utterly predictable and unexciting Republican who had lived and served in Washington DC since 1981 (he listed a house owned by a Kansas supporter as his home address, so as to qualify as a Kansas resident; he defended himself by saying he sleeps in its easy chair at least a couple of times every year), and Greg Orman, a charismatic, mostly self-made millionaire and political independent. Orman was Robert's sole opponent because Chad Taylor, a district attorney from Shawnee County who had been nominated by the Kansas Democratic party, withdrew from the race in September with the full support of the party leadership, which proceeded to fight a legal battle against the Roberts team to keep Taylor's name off the ballot (they succeeded).

Why did they go through all this? Because the polls showed that Roberts, who never exactly set his own party on fire anyway, was vulnerable...but only if there wasn't a spoiler in the race. And in this case, the spoiler was judged by many to be not, as is usually assumed to be the case, the independent interloper, but rather the candidate from a major political party. Which is essentially the same decision made by Utah Democratic leaders a few days ago. 

So the electoral apparatus of the minority party in these two strongly Republican states essentially shut down, all in the name of increasing the likelihood of defeating the incumbent. Was Orman's effort in Kansas in 2014 a harbinger for what will happen in Utah this year? Utah Democrats presumably would hope not; Orman ended up losing to Roberts by 53% to 42%, with a Libertarian candidate capturing most of the remaining 5%. Those numbers are basically identical to the loss which Democrat Barbara Bollier--after running easily the best funded and organized state-wide campaign which any Democratic senatorial candidate had run in Kansas in decades--suffered in 2020 to Republican Roger Marshall. So maybe the attempt to lure Republicans away from their regular voting patterns by putting forward an independent instead of a Democrat is pointless? Probably, for all sorts of reasons baked into the demographics and socialization which characterizes our extremely polarized political present. But only "probably." Herewith, five reasons why the move by Utah Democrats to defeat Lee by supporting McMullin this November might play out differently than did the effort by Kansas to defeat Roberts by supporting Orman eight years ago.

1) 2022 isn't 2014, Mike Lee isn't Pat Roberts, and Utah isn't Kansas  

Senate races were certainly just as nationalized in 2014 as they are today, and during that election cycle Tea Party protests and anti-Obama paranoia was very much part of the national discourse shaping how voters--politically voters inclined to vote Republican, which in Kansas out-number those inclined to vote Democrat by two-to-one--thought about control of the U.S. Senate. Still, the Trump years, and especially the attack on the Capitol by Trump supporters on January 6, 2021, have absolutely focused and ramped up extremes even further, forcing open rhetorical options that simply weren't present or politically available in the Roberts-Orman race (for example, McMullin's accusation that Lee must account for his "brazen treachery" can't be entirely dismissed as ideological grandstanding). And Mike Lee's transformation from Trump critic to willing supporter of his efforts to stay in office beyond his loss in the 2020 election paints a target on his chest which Roberts, a perfectly hackish (or, more nicely, dutiful) piece of Republican furniture, never carried. Finally, Utah Republican voters aren't identical to Kansas Republican voters; while the end results are pretty similar, Utah's Republicans are more somewhat more likely--due to differences in education levels, religious culture, and party history--to be motivated by ideology than by historical party identification itself...which means that if McMullin can come up with a good intellectual argument to support the moderately conservative no-long-officially-a-Republican rather than the strongly conservative Republican in the race, it may work--at least for a few Utah voters, and that may be all that matters.

2) Evan McMullin isn't Greg Orman

Speaking of McMullin and Orman themselves, the odds might seem even worse for the earnest independent from Utah. He lacks Orman's charisma, Orman's money, or Orman's social connections. However, those personal qualities fade in importance when one looks at the larger political pictures of these two states and two moments in time. Orman was, essentially, a business-friendly, socially moderate Democrat trying to avoid being tagged as a Democrat (thanks to then-Vice President Joe Biden, he failed) in a state where Democrats are in a perpetual minority. That's not an implausible strategy; Kansas has historically elected Democrats to state-wide offices (like our current governor, Laura Kelly), when the Republicans can be painted as too extreme, too culturally obsessed, and not fiscally responsible enough. But when it comes to campaigns for federal office, that locally effective strategy ran straight into national polarization. McMullin won't have that problem; he is a fiscal and cultural conservative (though not as conservative as Lee), and until 2016, had the party label to prove it. That's not to say Lee won't be able to turn our national ideological and partisan divides against him; he absolutely will, going after McMullin on LGBTQ issues, abortion issues, and more, all so as to force him to antagonize Utah's few, long-suffering liberals, or reveal himself as someone who may sometimes be sympathetic to the Democratic position in Congress, thus antagonizing Utah Republicans who may dislike Lee's defense of Trump but maybe not enough to be ready to actually vote across party lines, or both. Still, that's a tightrope which traverses Utah's actually existing Republican landscape, unlike Orman's tightrope, which imagined the existence in Kansas of large numbers of moderate Republicans or independents which, when it comes to national elections, mostly aren't there.

3) Greg Orman didn't have Ben McAdams

Orman was--and I would presume still is--one of those very rare (though they almost invariably believe themselves to be part of a huge hidden mass, just waiting to be revealed) genuine independents in matters of politics. Usually financially secure, well-educated, fairly secular, and deeply pragmatic, they tend to feel that, gosh darn it, if people could just get past the partisanship and quit listening to the rhetoric and just focus instead on what works, they'd discover that actually there are common-sense solutions to all our problems out there. The sort of people who are infuriated by the admittedly often mind-numbingly stupid political positioning and split-the-difference compromising which small-d democratic politics--particularly ever since the rise of mass democracy in the 19th century--requires. Such independents are almost invariably anti-party; they want to communicate with their fellow frustrated independents directly. Orman is a true believer in this gospel; he wrote a whole book about it (it's naive, in my opinion, but not bad!).

None of this describes McMullin, and the evidence for that is the support which his play for the Utah Democratic party's endorsement received from Ben McAdams, former mayor of Salt Lake County, former one-term Representative, and a leading figure in the Utah Democratic party. McAdams, like any successful Democrat in Utah (like any successful Democrat in Kansas), is socially moderate and when it comes to taxes and government programs, often sounds like a Republican. But his commitment to his party is strong--which is exactly which made his personal endorsement of McMullin's independent run against Lee (risking his own standing among longtime supporters and donors), and his push to get his party to decline to put anyone on the ballot and unite behind McMullin against Lee instead, so valuable. This isn't an independent running against the party system; rather, this is an independent candidate twisting the existing party system, with help from people like McAdams on the inside, to make it possible for Utah voters to have a choice regarding something--Lee's commitment to Trump's lies--which, unlike so many other divisive policies, a large number of Utah Republicans and Democrats both appear to care about.

For some political observers, this kind of cross-party fusion--which also means, in effect, a splitting up of the national Democratic party, which some state parties going in significantly different directions--is one of the few ways forward for Democrats in the face of massive political polarization and structural obstacles. Democrats as "Democrats" don't have a chance in state-wide elections in Utah, the reasoning goes: so, given the stakes many see in Mike Lee's continued presence in the U.S. Senate, why shouldn't Utah Democrats try running a Republican instead? It might work, if only because this wouldn't involve working against long-established voting patterns; rather, it would be attempting to work alongside them (though in a perverse way). Noah Millman praised this kind of thinking in The Week--though he later followed it up with a warning: "For his campaign to be viable, though, McMullin needs to be clear that he is not promising to caucus with the Democrats, that he would, in fact, prefer to caucus with the Republicans, but that he has conditions for caucusing that, in theory, either party could meet. If he doesn’t do that, and if Lee can effectively accuse him of being a Democrat in all but name, then I doubt he stands much of a chance."

Whether he has a chance against Lee's organization, Lee's money, Lee's support from former President (or, according to some Republicans, President-in-Exile) Donald Trump, and the powerful infrastructure of the Utah Republican party remains to be seen. But Utah's 2022 senate race will be, at the very least, quite different from Kansas's 2014 race. In the latter case, the Kansas Democrats made way for a very Democratic-sounding Independent, who wanted to be free of party labels, to run against the Republican incumbent; in the former, the Utah Democrats made way for a Republican, who will accept any party support he can get, to run unimpeded against another Republican. A pretty original move, that.


Tukuvwi said...

Nice write-up. One correction though: McAdams was the mayor of Salt Lake County, not Salt Lake City. He's not nearly liberal enough to be SLC's mayor ;-).

Russell Arben Fox said...

Thanks for the correction, Tukuvwi! I'll take care of that.