Goldstone’s most recent book is "On Account of Race: The Supreme Court, White Supremacy, and the Ravaging of African American Voting Rights."
There is an old bit of folklore in which Canada Bill Jones, a 19th century gambler, was asked why he was playing in a game he knew was crooked. “Because it’s the only game in town,” he was said to reply. The same response might be elicited today from Democrats in Utah, and possibly in Wyoming.
In Utah, faced with the almost certain reelection of Sen. Mike Lee, an election-denying, Trump-worshiping, conspiracy-promoting archconservative, Democrats chose not to put forward their own candidate but rather endorse another conservative, Evan McMullin, for the seat. In a state that Donald Trump carried by 20 points, even Lee’s texts to former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows encouraging the overturn of the 2020 presidential election would not persuade freedom-loving, rule-of-law Utah Republicans to vote for a Democrat.
McMullin, however, just might be a different story. A former CIA officer and one-time Republican who mounted a quixotic, independent anti-Trump presidential campaign in 2016, McMullin got less than 1 percent of the vote nationally, but more than 20 percent in Utah. Unlike Lee, he has come out favoring voting rights legislation, opposing partisan gerrymandering, toughening ethics rules, endorsing clean air and water legislation, and eliminating dark money in politics. In accepting the Democratic endorsement, McMullin said, “I’m humbled and grateful to the Democratic delegates today for their decision to support this growing cross-partisan coalition. 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.”
But McMullin is no liberal — he might not even qualify as a centrist. He favors beefed-up military spending, reduced spending in other government sectors, balanced budget legislation and increased border security. He was unabashedly anti-abortion but has moderated that position by admitting that the repeal of Roe v. Wade would spark a health care crisis.
In fact, since his acceptance of Democratic support in April, many of McMullin’s more conservative positions have softened. But that, after all, is the point. Although many of McMullin’s priorities will remain anathema to the left, especially the far left, in running a campaign that is coalition-based, he must respect the needs of all its members. That means that if McMullin enters the Senate, a door that was regularly slammed in the face of Democrats will now be open. Lee, on other hand, is beholden only to the extreme right.
Even with Democratic support, McMullin faces a difficult campaign — but not an impossible one. Although the 877,000 Republican registered voters dwarf the 234,000 for Democrats, almost 475,000 Utah voters are registered as non-aligned. If McMullin can peel away even a fifth of the registered Republicans, persuade Democrats to vigorously back him, and win a decent chunk of independents, he has a chance for a major upset. At the very least, he has forced Lee to run a genuine campaign in which at some point he will be forced to answer for his post-election behavior, including texts to Meadows favoring the submission of alternate slates of pro-Trump electors on Jan. 6, 2021.
To date, Lee has been able to oil his way by with not very persuasive denials to friendly media outlets. “At no point in any of those [tweets] was I engaging in advocacy,” Lee protested to the Deseret News. “I wasn't in any way encouraging them to [submit alternate slates of electors]. I just asked them a yes or no question.” If, however, the race polls closely enough that Lee is forced to agree to debates, McMullin will be far less accepting of a statement that has been refuted by Lee’s own communications with a fellow conspirator.
In Wyoming, another previously Darth Vader-esque conservative, Rep. Liz Cheney, is facing likely defeat in the Republican primary to retain her seat. In the latest polls, Cheney trails Trump-backed Harriet Hageman by more than 20 points. Hageman has made certain there can be no doubt as to her subservience to the idolatry-demanding Trump. “He was the greatest president of my lifetime, and I am proud to have been able to renominate him in 2020. And I’m proud to strongly support him today.”
Her other positions are less clear other than vague assurances that she, not Cheney, is the true conservative in the race. But positions are not important — the lead entry on her website is simply “Donate Now to Defeat Liz Cheney.”
Cheney, as unlikely a hero to the left as is possible to imagine, has been actively soliciting Democrats to switch party registration to vote for her in the August primary. If that does not work, she may well run in November as an independent. (In 2010, Lisa Murkowski lost a primary to a Tea Party Republican but won the general election with a write-campaign.) Unlike in Utah, Wyoming’s Democrats, who have even a larger registration deficit, are not flocking to Cheney’s side. Wyoming Democratic Party spokesman Dean Ferguson condemned Cheney for consistently voting with Trump. “She doesn’t share our values,” he harrumphed.
For Cheney to win, she will need a larger segment of Republican voters than McMullin and an extremely robust turnout among Democrats, who often do not even bother to put up candidates for state office. Ferguson does not seem to have grasped that a principled conservative congresswoman with whom he shares little ideological ground is better than one with no real principles and a similar ideological disconnect.
Whether McMullin and Cheney win, they have introduced an interesting wrinkle to the political process. In deep-red states such Alabama or Mississippi, Democrats have no hope of one of their candidates defeating even the most extreme Republicans. But in each of those states, as well as a number of others, including Mitch McConnell’s Kentucky, Democratic and Republican voter registration is a good deal closer – and in some cases, as in Kentucky, almost identical.
Many Democrats will blanch at the prospect of voting for a conservative, but it will be a good deal easier to bridge the ideological divide in Congress if the first steps are taken before elections.
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