SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH - Until very recently, hardly anyone in America had heard of Evan McMullin, the independent presidential candidate from Utah. A former CIA man who worked in the Middle East and is a Mormon, like nearly 70 percent of Utahans, McMullin got into the race three months ago with a conservative but immigrant-friendly platform. As more and more crude statements by Trump came out, McMullin started climbing in the polls. With less than a week to go to the election, McMullin is neck and neck with Trump in the polls and could cost him conservative Utah, and the presidency.
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In a Salt Lake City Tribune poll, Trump led McMullin 32 percent to 30 percent, with the difference between them within the margin of error. McMullin and his supporters are envisioning two possible scenarios for Election Day. The more realistic one is a victory in Utah, which would spell a stinging rebuke to the Republican establishment. A McMullin victory in reliably red-state Utah would deal a mortal blow to Donald Trump’s hopes of eclipsing Hillary Clinton.
But in the past week, McMullin has also been talking about a less likely, though more exciting, scenario: If he wins in Utah, the loss of that state’s six electoral votes could potentially deny both Trump and Clinton the 270 electoral votes needed to win the election. Then, as mandated by the U.S. Constitution, it would be up to the U.S. House of Representatives to choose among the three leading candidates for president. Thus, in a very surprising turn of events, McMullin could possibly be named President of the United States.
Donald Trump has not been able to ignore the polls from Utah, and this week he and his running mate Mike Pence attacked McMullin in an interview with Fox News. “He takes votes away from me, this man I never heard of,” said Trump, complaining that McMullin is “going from coffee shop to coffee shop” to pick up votes (A comment that probably didn’t Trump ingratiate himself with devout Mormons, who abstain from coffee). The day after the Fox News interview, Utahans received recorded phone calls from William Johnson, a white nationalist and Trump supporter. “Evan has two mommies. His mother is a lesbian, married to another woman. Evan is okay with that. Indeed Evan supports the Supreme Court ruling legalizing gay marriage Evan is over 40 years old and is not married and doesn’t even have a girlfriend. I believe Evan is a closet homosexual,” Johnson said in the robocalls.
The recording might have hurt another Mormon candidate, but it doesn’t seem to have dented McMullin’s momentum. In past interviews, McMullin spoke openly about his mother’s lesbian marriage following her divorce from his father. “"As far as my mother's marriage is concerned, I believe in the sanctity of traditional marriage. It is an important part of my faith," McMullin said in a recent interview with the Salt Lake Tribune. "My mother has a different view. That is OK. I love her very much, and she is one of my best friends. She is a wonderful mother. I wish everyone could have a mother like my mom," he added. In the same interview, McMullin said he accepts the Supreme Court ruling recognizing gay marriage nationwide, a decision that was fiercely opposed by many in the Mormon community.
McMullin campaign worker Peter Watkins thinks the smear phone calls will only remind Utah voters of the thuggishness of Donald Trump. "It's so ugly, and I think voters will see through it," Watkins said.
"So many people here were missionaries in South America, they are not afraid of people they don't know. Build the wall is not big in Utah. Neither is the anti-Muslim rhetoric," Watkins continued, adding that "the Mormons moved here to get away from religious persecution, and now to see the republican nominee calling for it?"
Although there are only a few thousand Jews in Utah, McMullin chose Mindy Finn, 36, who is Jewish and originally from Texas, as his running mate. “Coming from a long history of persecution, I believe it's important to stand up against persecution of others," Finn told Haaretz. Finn said that McMullin’s Mormon supporters are aware of her Jewishness and see it as an advantage. "The voters in Utah really appreciate that I'm Jewish," Finn said. "They value religion. If anything, it's a positive factor. It's important to welcome and respect everybody, regardless of race, creed or religion."
McMullin served in the Middle East during his time in the CIA, and when asked to name a foreign leader he admires in a past interview, the first name he mentioned was Benjamin Netanyahu. The former CIA man dismissed Trump's position on Israel and the Middle East.
"I'm not sure what Trump's policy on Israel and the Middle East is, he says all kinds of things", McMullin told Haaretz. "I think the United States should continue to be a strong ally to Israel. And we need to be more serious about defeating ISIS in Syria, and limiting Assad's killing machine against civilians."
In the coming days, McMullin and Finn will be crisscrossing Utah to make sure than as many voters as possible hear about them. In addition to the media coverage of the surprising turn the race has taken in Utah, the campaign is relying mainly on volunteers going house to house in Salt Lake City, word of mouth in the Mormon community, and social media to spread their message.
At the modest campaign headquarters on a pretty street a half-hour walk from downtown, volunteers work the phones to explain to Utahans that they needn’t vote against their conscience. McMullin is also on the ballot in 11 more states. Some of his fans from outside of Utah have been coming here, gushing with enthusiasm that there is a conservative alternative to Trump.
Gerry Dunleavy, 29, a phys-ed teacher from Ohio, says that ever since Trump won the Republican nomination, he’d been waiting and hoping for someone to challenge him. When that happened, he jumped in to help. “I think all of us have been hoping someone will stand up to Trump. People are extremely excited that there is an option not to vote for the lesser of two evils.”
Whitney Sanders, 22, from South Carolina, first heard about McMullin a few weeks ago, and landed in Utah a few days ago. “If there ever was a time when one person could make a difference, it's now," he says excitedly. “If he wins, it will send a message to those in power, that they can't nominate someone people don't like."
McMullin’s running mate Finn also thinks the campaign is just as the start of its political path. "Assuming we don't win, we are building a new kind of conservative movement. Republicans have alienated many people; this could be the beginning of a new party.”