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Sen. Mike Lee tries to distance himself from Trump in Utah debate

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OREM, Utah — Fending off attacks from his independent opponent, U.S. Senator Mike Lee of Utah struggled to distinguish himself from former President Donald Trump during a contentious debate Monday night.

“I have stood against my party many times to oppose reckless spending. I will do it again and again and again. We need people who say no,” the second-term Republican said.

Lee has repeatedly said his voting record shows he is not beholden to any party or politician. Twice, he told the Utah Valley University audience that he voted less in agreement with Trump than all but two Republican senators — Rand Paul and Susan Collins.

“To suggest that I am indebted to either party, that I have been a sucker for either party is madness. And that’s contradicted by the clear facts,” Lee said.

Lee faces a challenge from Evan McMullin, a former Republican best known for his long-term bid for president six years ago, when as an independent he won 21.5% of the vote in Utah, including Lee’s. McMullin has since become a pillar of the anti-Trump movement, attacking Trump as a threat to democracy and arguing that his actions are contrary to the history of the Republican Party and what is best for the United States.

Lee’s attempts to draw a distinction with Trump reflect the particular dynamics emerging in Utah this election cycle. In the red state marquee race, one candidate runs as an independent and the other tries to emphasize his independent streak.

The race has taken shape as one of many nationwide referendums on the direction Trump has taken for the GOP. McMullin is trying to tap into the anti-Trump sentiment that has set Utah apart from other Republican strongholds. Lee’s last-minute efforts to put some space between his voting record and Trump’s positions depart from his past posts as Election Day approaches.

“I don’t think he’s trying to distance himself from Trump. What I think he’s trying to do is draw that contrast. Everyone’s like, ‘Oh, he’s a dog of guard,” Utah Republican Party Chairman Carson Jorgensen said. “No, he stood up for what he believed in every time, even when it came to Trump.”

Utah is a reliable Republican state, but its religiously steeped politics are idiosyncratic. The majority of residents belong to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which places a high value on good manners and avoids alcohol and foul language. Members of the Republican Faith lean, but polls have shown Trump has less strong support among them than other prominent GOP politicians.

Trump failed to win the support of a majority of Utah voters in 2016 and Joe Biden fared better with Utah voters in 2020 than any Democrat since 1964.

Lee’s emphasis on his desire to distance himself from Trump comes as McMullin attempts to cast him as one of the former president’s most loyal followers. McMullin recently ran an attack ad based on Lee’s 2020 remarks comparing Trump to Captain Moroni, a scriptural hero from the Book of Mormon.

Monday’s debate was McMullin’s first shift to directly confront Lee about the text messages he sent to Trump Chief of Staff Mark Meadows on the eve of the January 6, 2021 attack on the US Capitol, which he made a centerpiece of his campaign. .

The texts show Lee asking for advice on how to contribute to efforts to challenge the 2020 election results. Lee defended his actions, saying he simply intended to look into the legal arguments and rumors that swing states would submit lists of fake voters, noting that he had ultimately voted to certify the results.

On Monday, Lee demanded an apology from McMullin and said his version of events showed a “cavalier and reckless disregard for the truth.”

Although the posts suggest Lee researched the legality of alternative voter rolls prior to Jan. 6, Lee said they showed no evidence that he supported such a system. He said he would not have done so and noted that he had voted to certify the election results.

A raucous crowd of mostly Lee supporters jeered and booed when McMullin called Lee’s actions a “travesty”.

“Senator Lee, this was the most flagrant betrayal of our nation’s Constitution in its history by a United States Senator. I believe this will be your legacy,” McMullin said, waving his finger at Lee.