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Mike Lee, Evan McMullin spar over 2020, abortion and inflation in lone debate appearance

Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee, right, and his independent challenger Evan McMullin pose for photographs before their televised debate, Monday, Oct. 17, 2022, in Orem, Utah, three weeks before Election Day. The debate will be the only time the candidates appear together in the lead-up to next month's midterm elections.
Rick Bowmer
Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee, right, and his independent challenger Evan McMullin pose for photographs before their televised debate. The debate in Orem will be the only time the candidates appear together in the lead-up to November's midterm elections.

Republican incumbent Sen. Mike Lee and independent hopeful Evan McMullin faced off on the debate stage at Utah Valley University Monday night. It’s the most competitive U.S. Senate race Utah has seen in decades.

The debate was hosted by the nonpartisan Utah Debate Commission and was moderated by Doug Wright of KSL NewsRadio and Television.

While FiveThirtyEight marks the race as “clearly favored” for Lee, the most recent Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll shows Lee ahead by just four points.

U.S. Senate Debate with Mike Lee and Evan McMullin

Both self-identified conservatives fiercely defended their positions in the crowded auditorium, but continuously reiterated that neither is beholden to a single party. Although Lee underscored his commitment to the GOP as the only way to break the Democratic hold in Congress.

When speaking, Lee and McMullin mostly looked directly at one another instead of the audience or camera.

2020 election results

McMullin, a former CIA operative and GOP staffer who previously ran for president in 2016, emphasized that Lee worked to change the 2020 presidential election results.

He said Lee committed the “most egregious betrayal of our nation's Constitution in its history by a U.S. Senator” for his hand in entertaining the idea that former President Donald Trump won the election.

“You advised the White House, ‘find an alternative slate of electors for Trump’ to overturn the will of the people,” McMullin said, referring to text messages between Lee and Trump’s Chief of Staff Mark Meadows.

Lee pushed back on McMullin’s argument that he fought to overturn the 2020 election. Lee tried to lay the controversy to rest by stating he voted to certify the election results for President Joe Biden. He did though admit to “making phone calls” to confirm the election results were valid.

“There were rumors circulating suggesting that some states were considering switching out their slates of electors,” Lee said. “The rumors were false. On that basis, I voted to certify the results of the election.”

Despite the political wrangling, Lee and McMullin sought to engage Utah voters on various topics like the economy, abortion and the environment.

The economy

The opponents dove into inflation and other facets of the economy during the debate.

Lee said inflation has been a burdensome issue for Utahns he met on the campaign trail. He blamed “runaway inflation” on big spending from the Democrat-controlled Congress.

“We need people to say ‘no,’ because when Washington only wants to spend money, they're spending it at your expense,” Lee said. “Stop excessive federal spending.”

McMullin said the issue of government spending is something both candidates agree on. But he criticized Lee for not working to fix the problem and said the national deficit has only grown since he’s been in office.

If elected, McMullin said he is committed to working across party lines to reduce the national deficit.

“We need to send people to Washington who are willing to stand up both to Republicans and Democrats in the White House who are guilty of reckless spending,” McMullin said. “Sen. Lee refuses to do that, and those are his broken politics.”


Lee said he wholeheartedly agrees with the Supreme Court's decision to have states decide abortion rights.

“As a pro-life American who loves the Constitution deeply, I am thrilled with the Dobbs decision,” he said.

Lee said Roe v. Wade, which guaranteed the right to an abortion, was deeply flawed from the get-go. Lee said this is where the law should remain because it is “within the states where we can achieve the most consensus and protect the most babies.”

McMullin also identified as “pro-life” and said he’s always “believed in the sanctity of life.” But the independent said the issue has been used to divide the country and pit citizens against one another.

McMullin said there is a “constructive way” to tackle the abortion debate.

“It’s making contraception more available, doing more to support women, children and families, and imparting the right values to our youth,” he said. “That's what we can do to lower the abortion rate in America.”


Both candidates recognized the pressing water issues facing the state. McMullin said the ailing Great Salt Lake is an economic, health and environmental issue.

He knocked Lee for not doing enough to save Great Salt Lake and not working on legislation that would secure water in Utah. Meanwhile, McMullin applauded the work Sen. Mitt Romney, R-UT, has done to bring water to the lake.

McMullin said he’s committed to finding ways for Washington to help update the state’s water infrastructure and save the state’s iconic landmark.

“We need leaders who are going to work across party lines to solve problems and ensure that we have what we need to strengthen our water infrastructure and conservation practices,” McMullin said.

Lee said he’s advocated for water storage in Washington, but he said more research also needs to be done. And since a big chunk of Utah is federal land, he argued there’s too much red tape around building water storage infrastructure efficiently.

He said he’s introduced the Unshackled Act to streamline the permitting process to build water storage infrastructure.

“It's the single best thing that we can do to help the Great Salt Lake and the rest of our state along with it,” Lee said.

Mail-in ballots for the November election are in the process of being sent out to registered voters. Utahns have until Oct. 28 to register to vote to receive a mail-in ballot. People can also register at early voting locations or at the polls on election day. The election takes place on Nov. 8.

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