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Lee-McMullin Senate debate is set for Oct. 17

Republican Sen. Mike Lee, left, and political independent challenger Evan McMullin.
US Senate, McMullin for Utah Campaign
Republican Sen. Mike Lee, left, and political independent challenger Evan McMullin.

UPDATE: Here's the live stream for the Oct. 17 debate. Our original story continues below.

It’s official: Incumbent Republican Sen. Mike Lee and Senate hopeful and independent Evan McMullin will debate ahead of the November midterm election.

The nonpartisan Utah Debate Commission announced that the two candidates will face off at Utah Valley University on Oct. 17, just one day before mail-in ballots are sent out to voters.

The debate was rescheduled after the commission realized the initial date of Oct. 4 fell on Yom Kippur.

Unlike in the primaries where the Utah Republican Party opted to host its own debates, GOP party Chair Carson Jorgensen said this time around the organization plans to participate in the debates sponsored by the Utah Debate Commission.

Jorgensen said the party decided to forgo primary debate participation because the commission wouldn’t allow input on its questions or moderators. But because this is a statewide election and not solely focused on appealing to registered GOP voters, they’ve decided to stick with the commission’s debate schedule.

“As long as it looks like it's being fair and as long as the candidates feel that they're being treated in a fair manner, we're going to move forward,” he said.

Jay DeSart, the chair of the Department of History and Political Science at Utah Valley University and board member of the Utah Debate Commission, anticipates a lively debate. He considers this Senate race to be “unique” compared to previous elections when a Republican and Democrat were on the ballot.

“McMullin is running as an independent, but his history demonstrates that he is a Republican,” he said. “And so really what we've got is sort of a super primary, where it really comes down to two Republicans.”

Prior to his senate campaign, McMullin ran as an independent presidential candidate in the 2016 general election against former President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. He secured 21% of the Utah vote, which signaled to DeSart “that there is a potential schism within the majority Republican Party in the state” when it comes to the direction the GOP is heading.

McMullin said he’s always considered himself to be politically independent, but acknowledged he leaned more conservative and even worked as the chief policy director for the House Republican Conference in the U.S. House of Representatives at one point. To McMullin, the national party is vastly different from the GOP he was formally involved with, stating it’s become “extreme” and “unrecognizable.”

“I didn't leave the party,” McMullin said. “The party left me.”

He clumped Sen. Lee in the “extreme” category, claiming the sitting senator committed one of the most “egregious” acts of constitutional betrayal when Lee tried to “find fake electors in swing states to keep a president who had lost an election in office despite the will of the people.”

McMullin was referring to Sen. Lee’s preliminary support for challenging the 2020 presidential election that ousted Trump from the White House. Lee later voiced concerns over the ploy to Trump Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and voted to certify the election results in favor of President Joe Biden.

“The extremes can never govern. And Mike Lee is a part of the far right in our country and our politics,” McMullin said.

Sen. Lee declined KUER’s interview request for this story.

The state GOP chair is rooting for the incumbent. Jorgensen said the party “is not real pleased” with McMullin and that he didn’t even try to reach out to the GOP. Additionally, he said McMullin has refused to answer complex questions or flipped his stance on hot-button topics like the reversal of Roe v. Wade. McMullin didn’t answer when asked where he stands on the U.S. Supreme Court’s abortion decision during an interview with KUER.

Rather, Jorgensen said he has the “utmost confidence” in the party’s candidates, including Lee, to prevail in the midterm elections and is looking forward to seeing the debate take place.

“I think it's [the debate] going to bring a lot of perspective into who Mike Lee is, and how professional he can be and how smart he is on all the issues,” Jorgensen said. “But I think we're about to see some stuff from Mike you haven't quite seen in the past.”

Saige is a politics reporter and co-host of KUER's State Street politics podcast
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