Democrats in Utah show how to get serious about democracy
The Utah Democratic Party has demonstrated flexibility, too rare a trait in today’s politics. Utahans now have a rare opportunity to strike a blow for democracy and the Constitution.
Fighting Republican authoritarianism means sometimes delaying political gratification.
The Utah Democratic Party did something extraordinary last week: They threw their support behind a Republican. Well, a former Republican, anyway. Evan McMullin, who ran for president as an independent in 2016, is now seeking to unseat Sen. Mike Lee.
At the Democratic Party convention, some delegates were uncomfortable. But most were swayed by the arguments of former Democratic Rep. Ben McAdams, who vouched for McMullin’s integrity and urged that he would help “heal the divide” in Washington. Besides, he said, McMullin has a real path to victory. The Democrats agreed and voted to join a coalition that also includes the United Utah Party, to endorse McMullin.
Now it isn’t as if any Democratic nominee would stand a ghost of a chance. Utah hasn’t elected a Democrat to the Senate in more than 50 years, and Republicans outnumber Democrats in the state 5-to-1. But McMullin is a political unicorn — a former Republican, CIA veteran and conservative who garnered 21% of the vote in Utah when he made his quixotic presidential bid in 2016.
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Lee was swept into office by the Tea Party wave of 2010. He defeated incumbent Republican Bob Bennett in the primary by arguing that Bennett had lost his edge after years in Washington. Lee claimed that he, by contrast, was a “constitutional conservative.” His website boasts that he has “spent his career defending the fundamental liberties of all Americans and advocating for America’s founding constitutional principles.”
Unless those principles conflict with his personal ambitions. Maybe that’s in the small print.
Lee was among the last holdouts at the GOP convention in 2016, hoping to deploy procedural rules to deny Trump the nomination. In July of that year, adverting to Trump’s “authoritarian” tendencies, he shot back at a MAGA radio host, “Don’t sit here and tell me that I have no reason to be concerned about Donald Trump. ... I mean we can get into the fact that he accused my best friend’s father of conspiring to kill JFK.”
But over the following years, like every other leading Republican except those you can list on two hands, Lee immolated his constitutional principles on a pyre. The recently revealed text messages to Trump’s White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows reveal a senator not only willing to overlook a little authoritarianism now and again, but also an active participant in a behind-the-scenes effort to overturn a free and fair election. On Dec. 8, 2020, for example, Lee texted to Meadows that “If a very small handful of states were to have their legislatures appoint alternative slates of delegates, there could be a path.”
Lee, you see, wanted the coup to be by the book. If the states (the ones Trump lost) submitted alternate slates of electors, why then, according to the Constitution and the Electoral Count Act, the MAGA forces could stall and possibly prevent the certification of Biden’s victory. Lee later texted to Meadows that he was on the phone “14 hours a day” discussing whether state legislators were going to submit “clean” slates for Trump. After the texts leaked, he told the Deseret News that “At no point in any of those was I engaging in advocacy. I wasn’t in any way encouraging them to do that. I just asked them a yes or no question.”
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It didn’t occur to Mr. Constitutional Conservative that phone calls from a United States senator to state legislators asking questions might be interpreted as signals or even possibly as threats? He certainly knew that Trump was engaging in every possible ploy to overturn the election. What business did a Utah senator have even calling legislators from Pennsylvania or Michigan? And he wasn’t troubled by the utter fallaciousness of the election fraud claims, rejected by something like 63 courts, that would be the foundation of any effort to submit alternative slates? That’s the nub of it. It was a lie — a blatant, stinking lie.
In October 2020, Lee famously tweeted “We’re not a democracy.” It’s a familiar conservative talking point. We are a republic. True. A democratic republic. A republican form of government depends utterly on votes being counted legally and properly. Otherwise, the Constitution’s guarantee becomes a dead letter, rather like the sham elections in Russia or Cuba. It seems that Lee wanted to use the Constitution as a fig leaf for a naked power grab. Yes, he ultimately voted to certify Biden’s victory, but only after granting the coup plot legitimacy with his backroom maneuvering.
The Utah Democratic Party has demonstrated flexibility, too rare a trait in today’s politics. Utahans now have a rare opportunity to strike a blow for democracy and the Constitution. A McMullin victory would signal that there are consequences for betraying your oath and making a mockery of appeals to the Constitution.
Mona Charen is policy editor of The Bulwark and host of the “Beg to Differ” podcast.
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