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FOX 13 News 360: Can an independent candidate win a major elected office in Utah?

Posted at 10:00 PM, Jan 16, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-17 11:01:23-05

SALT LAKE CITY — Senate candidate Evan McMullin recently announced a major milestone in fundraising: more than one million dollars in the first three months of his campaign.

But between now and the 2022 election, he’ll face stiff competition from candidates backed by the Democratic and Republican parties, including incumbent Sen. Mike Lee.

FOX 13 asked McMullin and others about his odds of becoming the first independent candidate to win a major elected office in Utah.

“People are just looking for something new,” McMullin said.

“Independents have won in other states. Lisa Murkowski ran as an independent in Alaska and won. Angus King in Maine. There are many examples that are not well known by everyone, but people do win as independents,” he added.

McMullin first entered the political landscape as an independent candidate for President in the 2016 election.

While his campaign did gain attention, McMullin ultimately finished third in Utah, behind Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

When it comes to “active voters," there are 853,875 registered Republicans, 243,981 Democrats, and 494,850 unaffiliated voters in Utah, according to information on

Those numbers indicate an uphill battle for McMullin, as he would have to secure a large number of votes from people who typically align with traditional parties.

“Yes, an independent can win in Utah. Is it likely an independent will win in Utah? It depends on the circumstances,” said Jim Bennett, co-founder of the United Utah Party and son of late Senator Bob Bennett.

“The thing about politics is that money rules the day. And while it’s impressive that Evan McMullin has raised 1.1 million dollars, the reality is that Mike Lee is going to have an unlimited budget for re-election, and it’s not going to come from campaign donations directly to his campaign," Bennett said. "When Mike Lee ran against my father in 2010, when he was first elected, he didn’t have a lot of money. The Club for Growth came in and dumped millions of dollars into the pre-primary election. They didn’t really care whether Mike Lee was elected — they just wanted to get rid of my dad and demonstrate that they were the kingmakers. And since then, Mike Lee has done everything in his power to suck up to those kinds of money folks, and it’s going to be a real uphill battle for Evan McMullin.

Still, Bennett wishes McMullin well in his effort to be the first person elected to office without the backing of a major party.

“The reality is Utah is a one-party state, not a two-party state. The Democratic Party’s not viable on a statewide level, which I think opens the door for another party to be able to fill that void," he added. "That’s what we’re hoping United Utah Party can do, and going forward I think we’ve got a slate of candidates that can do that."

James Curry, a political science professor at the University of Utah and member of the Hinckley Institute for Politics, says voting trends indicate increasing levels of party loyalty.

“We tend to see voters — early in elections — say, 'Yeah, I’d consider and independent.' But by the time we get to October, November, they go back home to where they usually vote," he said.

Curry says that often includes those who identify as “unaffiliated” or “independent” voters.

“People say that they don’t like the two-party system and they’ll give a lot of unfavorable attitudes towards the two parties. They also mainly just don’t like one of the two parties most of the time. They may not love the other one, but they tend to really hate one. So the idea of going for an independent if it might risk putting in someone in office from a party you really hate, can sometimes draw people away from considering an independent candidate,” Curry said.

Citing examples of when independent candidates have succeeded in other states, he added: “You need to have such high name recognition that you don’t really need that party label to help you. And then you need enough voters to be interested in something that’s different."

McMullin says he believes Utah is fertile ground for independent politicians.

“Part of why Utah is unique is it has an independent streak. It has a lot to do with even our history, how we settled the state, our ancestors did,” McMullin said.