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Republican Mike Lee wins in the most competitive Senate race Utah has seen in decades

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Go next to Utah, where there was a fairly competitive Senate race, at least for Utah. The AP, however, says incumbent Senator Mike Lee, a Republican, has won. Saige Miller of our member station KUER is in Salt Lake City. Good morning to you.

SAIGE MILLER, BYLINE: Good morning. Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: How close was it, if at all?

MILLER: You know what? It was the most competitive U.S. Senate race Utah has seen in absolute decades. So - but it's no Georgia. But it was more than most people expected. Lee was up about 15 points. If you consider the fact that he won by more than 40 points his last election, it was a good race.

INSKEEP: Yeah. Mitt Romney, I guess, when he ran there got more than 60% of the vote - 62% or something. Mike Lee gets 55. That is, as you point out, a decisive win in normal circumstances. But it's a very, very, very Republican state. What did Democrats and others do to try to compete?

MILLER: Yeah. So they put up a candidate, Evan McMullin, who is an Independent who ran for president in 2016. And he actually garnered about 20-plus percent of Utah's vote. And ironically enough, Mike Lee actually voted for Evan McMullin in the 2016 presidential election. So Democrats didn't put up their own candidate. They did subsequently caucus for McMullin. And that may or may not have been the right move. But since it was the most competitive U.S. Senate race Utah has seen in decades, it seems as if it was a move to unseat Mike Lee.

INSKEEP: And we should note what Mike Lee had done that upset some Republicans. He supported - or he rejected the facts of the 2020 election, the reality that's been upheld by dozens of courts and thousands of election officials from both parties that Donald Trump lost the 2020 election.

MILLER: And that was a very big motivating factor for McMullin. Prior to his stunt in politics, he was a undercover CIA operative. And the idea of Mike Lee and those text messages, he says, was one of the most egregious betrayals of the U.S. Constitution that any U.S. senator has ever done. And that was very much so a strong talking point for him on the campaign trail. But it looks as if that was not strong enough to really garner enough votes to unseat Mike Lee this time.

INSKEEP: Yeah. And we should note, those are text messages around January 6, then-Donald Trump's effort to overturn his election defeat. What does all of this mean for Senator Mitt Romney, the other senator from Utah?

MILLER: Yeah, that's a good question. Mitt Romney did not endorse either candidate. And both candidates, up until a certain point, were pretty OK with that. There was an appearance on Fox News from Mike Lee where he was encouraging Mitt Romney to endorse him. And Mitt Romney just never did that. About an hour or so ago, Mitt Romney actually tweeted out congratulations to the U.S. House delegation that all won their reelection bid, along with Mike Lee, and says that he's looking forward to working with them again. But, yeah, he stayed incredibly neutral during this entire campaign.

INSKEEP: What do you think all of this says about the Utah electorate?

MILLER: I - that's a really great question. McMullin was able to get votes in parts of Utah that are just traditionally stronghold Republican areas. And that's mostly because, I would say, he is an Independent and appealed to that kind of electorate. But we will see. We'll see what happens in 2024.

INSKEEP: Saige Miller of KUER in Salt Lake City. Thanks so much.

MILLER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Saige Miller