>> An anti-Trump conservative challenges a pro-Trump Republican in a race that could determine control of the Senate, this week on "Firing Line."
>> Senator Lee has been doing this thing with his pocket Constitution for the last several years.
Senator Lee, it is not a prop.
It is not a prop.
>> It may be the race to watch on Election Day.
In Utah, independent conservative candidate Evan McMullin is challenging the incumbent, Republican Senator Mike Lee.
McMullin has served as policy director for House Republicans and has the backing of Utah's Democrats.
>> I'm not running to be a bootlicker for party bosses of either side.
>> Their clearest difference as candidates?
McMullin ran against President Trump in 2016 and says Trumpism poses a major threat to the American system of government.
Senator Lee voted for McMullin against Trump in 2016 but has since become a Trump loyalist.
>> Are you ready to stand with me and millions and millions of others who want four more years?
>> If McMullin can pull off an upset victory, he's vowed to stay a true independent.
But what happens if the Senate is split?
Could this race signal a new way of tackling partisan politics?
And what about a third party?
What does independent conservative candidate Evan McMullin say now?
>> "Firing Line with Margaret Hoover" is made possible in part by... And by... Corporate funding is provided by... >> Evan McMullin, welcome to the "Firing Line."
>> Great to be with you, Margaret.
>> This is the closest Senate race that Utah has seen in decades.
Now, you have been a Republican in the past, and you do continue to agree with Republicans on many issues, from the economy to abortion.
So why are you running as an independent?
>> Well, I'm an independent.
And actually, though I've been associated with the Republican Party or affiliated with the Republican Party as an independent for most of my adult life, what's more important to me is our commitment as a country to our founding ideals and to the institutions that allow their realization in our daily lives.
So I'm a conservative because I'm committed to those things.
I think that's what conservatism -- true conservatism is.
And though I've been an independent for most of my adult life, I've, until 2016, saw the Republican Party as the best vehicle for me to pursue the conservation of those things, our values and our institutions.
I still hope that the Republican Party will serve that purpose.
Certainly, it's gone in a direction that is something that I don't recognize as the party of Lincoln or the party of Reagan in which I grew up.
But I hope that it will return to be that, because I think the country needs a healthy conservative party and a healthy liberal or progressive party and a healthy competition of ideas between them.
Right now, I don't think that's the case.
>> So you don't think the Republican Party is the healthy conservative party right now.
Is that what I just heard you say?
>> I believe that's the case.
In general, I think both parties extremes have become far too influential.
Speaking of the Republican Party specifically, yes, it has been led in a direction under former president Trump that I believe runs counter to our our ideals as a country and counter to conservatism.
Conservatism isn't about preserving power for one group or one man at the expense of our values and our system of self-government, but rather preserving those things which should be the first task of conservatism.
>> Well, I don't need to tell you that Utah is a conservative state, and Utah hasn't elected a Democrat to the Senate in 45 years.
Your race is the only race in the country where Democrats did not nominate their own candidate.
Instead, they decided to back you.
This is such an anomaly that Politico has called this race "the strangest Senate race in America."
How did Democrats decide to get behind your candidacy?
>> Well, Margaret, we're building a cross-partisan coalition here in Utah, and we did some research ahead of time, understanding and understood based on that research that a majority of Utahns wanted to replace Mike Lee.
They were concerned about the health of our democratic republic.
They were concerned about our inability to solve major challenges as a state and a country.
They were concerned that -- that our country was weakening as a result of the politics of division and extremism.
And so I made the case to all of these groups that, as standalone factions, they would not have the votes to replace Senator Lee, though they all preferred to do so.
But together, they would have the votes.
As far as the Democrats are concerned, I think their vote to join my campaign, rather than nominating their own candidate who was pursuing their support, was a tremendous country-over-party moment for Utah, for the Democratic Party, and also for our country.
>> Donald Trump won 58% of the vote in Utah in 2020.
And so I wonder, what gave you the confidence that there would be enough Democrats, Independents, and anti-Trump Republicans to put you over the top and defeat Senator Mike Lee?
>> Well, I don't think 2020 shows the whole -- or, tells the whole story.
In 2020, there were really only two options -- Trump and Joe Biden.
And there are still a lot of Republicans in the state who never liked Trump but who aren't voting for Democrats.
And so they did vote for Trump even though they didn't support him and don't like him.
And after January 6th, especially, those voters have -- have abandoned the former president and now seek alternatives, within the Republican Party or without.
That's the case with a significant segment of Utah's voters.
They are Republicans.
They have never truly supported Trump.
They are not going to vote for Democratic candidates, but they are willing to support an Independent who reflects most of their values or positions on issues, and that's why we're in a competitive race now with Senator Lee, because many of them have joined us.
>> You served in the CIA for over a decade.
You went to Wharton Business School, you worked in the private sector.
You worked for House Republicans, running policy for them.
And then in 2016, you ran for president as an Independent candidate against Donald Trump.
And Senator Mike Lee voted for you in 2016 for president.
Now, I want to address your opponent's claims that you're a leftist and that you will be beholden to the Democratic Party.
Explain why he is wrong.
>> Well, it's ridiculous.
I mean, anyone who knows me, and most of Utah does know me, understands that I am no leftist.
It's an absurd claim.
But, look, the reason why Senator Lee makes that claim is that he can't run against a true conservative and win because he is not a true conservative.
You're not a true conservative if you interfere in public markets to ensure that your Big Pharma special-interest groups are able to overcharge taxpayers for prescription drugs.
You're not a conservative if you undermine our institutions and shut down the government, costing the federal taxpayer billions of dollars.
You're not a conservative, most importantly, if you betray the Constitution to try to overturn a free and fair election to keep a president who has lost an election in power despite the will of the people.
That is not conservatism.
You know, Senator Lee has a habit of pulling a pocket Constitution from his suit coat and waving it in the air as though it's a symbol of his commitment to that document.
But the reality is, he's happy to abandon it whenever it suits his own personal pursuit of power.
He's one of the least productive members of the Senate because he has come to embody the politics of division and extremism and cannot work with members of the opposing party or members of his own.
He even struggles to work with our very own Senator Romney, our other senator here in Utah, spending most recently more time on cable news attacking his fellow Utah senator than he does working with him to solve problems.
So I just think Senator Lee has no record to run on, and that's why he makes baseless claims about me.
But I know Utahns know me better than that, and that's why our coalition is growing.
>> So take on the chief accusation that Lee has out against you this week.
Swing at it.
>> Senator Lee only understands the political world and politics in America through a partisan prism.
It's Republicans versus Democrats, us versus them, and on and on and on.
So when faced with a conservative independent opponent, he simply doesn't know what to do.
We have Republicans, Democrats, and Independents, members of third parties involved in this effort, and I couldn't be more proud of it.
It's not happening this way anywhere else in the country, but it should.
And I'm hopeful that our campaign will set an example to others, in other states and districts, who might take a similar approach.
You might reject the politics of division and extremism in order to bring people together to preserve the American republic and help our country solve the major challenges it faces.
>> Your opponent, Senator Mike Lee, of course, vehemently opposed Donald Trump's candidacy for the presidency in 2016 and even tried to block his nomination at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.
Now, many people nationally may not know that he also, as we mentioned, voted for you in 2016 for president.
But since 2016, Senator Lee has undergone a bit of a metamorphosis and has become enormously loyal to the former president.
Why do you think he has changed so much?
>> It's about power.
But, you know, in 2016, as you point out, Senator Lee campaigned against Trump on the floor of the Republican National Convention after the "Access Hollywood" tape broke.
And it was understood that Trump had bragged about sexually assaulting women.
Lee called on him to exit the race.
On Election Day, Lee announced that he had voted for me, which makes his claims that I'm a leftist all the -- all the stranger.
But look, he changed very quickly after Election Day when Donald Trump actually prevailed.
I think he expected Trump to lose most of the country, I think expected that.
So, you know, no harm in being wrong, but I think when he was wrong about that, he decided that he needed to get on board with the former president in order to protect his own power.
And so that's exactly what he did.
And by the time we got to 2020, he was campaigning with Trump.
And in a moment that has become quite infamous in the minds of many Utahns -- most Utahns, in fact -- Senator Lee campaigned with Trump in October in 2020, in Mesa, Arizona.
And while he was there, he was standing on stage with the former president, and he compared him to a revered, righteous figure from the Book of Mormon, Captain Moroni.
>> You know, you and Senator Lee are both Mormon.
You're both part of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and this is the largest religious group in Utah.
What was your reaction to hearing Senator Lee compare Donald Trump to a sacred figure from the Book of Mormon?
>> Well, it was a false and awful comparison, clearly.
You know, Captain Moroni was a righteous, revered figure in the Book of Mormon, and Donald Trump never possessed the qualities of Captain Moroni.
But, look, this was Senator Lee trying to use scripture in the pursuit of personal power and at the expense, I think, of the interests of the country.
And it was deeply offensive.
And most Utahns, whether they're members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints or not, found that very troubling.
>> There were leaked text messages after the November 2020 presidential election which show your opponent, Senator Mike Lee, encouraging then White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows to pursue challenges to the election.
He texted about whether there could be alternate slates of pro-Trump electors in states that Joe Biden won.
He also texted that he was working 14 hours a day on the election challenge.
When I asked him about this when he was on "Firing Line," this is what he said.
>> And what those texts don't show, these were part of an ongoing series of conversations.
Each text isn't cumulative of previous texts and other conversations I had had with him and with others in which I was warning them against this, in which I was saying, "Look, I don't see a path for you."
Now, this would be one thing.
Now, I believed that there were going to be no slates.
But I was trying to get out of him whether he believed otherwise.
And that's why I suggested, "Look, this could change if states switch their slates, but I don't see that happening."
>> Senator Lee says he was simply trying to understand Mark Meadows' position.
Why don't you believe Senator Lee's explanation?
>> Well, he's lied about his activities.
He said he was only aware of the effort to find alternative slates of electors as of just a few days before January 6th.
But we know by his own text messages that as early as December 8th, he was urging the White House to find fake electors to overturn the election.
So Senator Lee played a central role in trying to overturn the will of the people through the identification of fake electors.
Now, it didn't begin there, though.
Senator Lee advised Trump's frivolous so-called legal challenges to the election, which almost all failed in court, but succeeded, as I think they were intended to, in convincing tens of millions of Americans that the election had been stolen.
Senator Lee still can't say the 2020 election was free and fair and legitimate.
He still casts doubts on its legitimacy, even as recently as our debate just days ago.
>> Did Joe Biden fairly win the 2020 presidential election?
>> Yes, Joe Biden is our president.
He was chosen in the only election that matters, the election held by the Electoral College.
Now, as to whether there were errors, as to whether some states might have conducted their elections better than others, there's always room for debate and questions about that.
>> Now, Senator Lee was at the center of the plot to overturn the American republic.
He urged the White House to find alternative slates of electors or I call them fake electors.
It is, Margaret, I believe, the most egregious betrayal of the American Constitution by a senator in our history.
Now, he wasn't alone.
There are others who participated.
At the end of the day, I think Senator Lee understood that the plot would not be successful, and he voted to certify the election, but he only did so having abandoned a plot that he helped to advance and, by his own accounts, worked overtime to advance.
He swore an oath to defend the Constitution, and he did exactly the opposite.
When the barbarians were at the gate, he was happy to let them in.
Senator Lee has abandoned and betrayed his oath to the Constitution and therefore must be removed.
>> There's an endorsement that Senator Mike Lee would like to get, the endorsement of the other senator from your state, Senator Mitt Romney.
>> So as soon as Mitt Romney's ready to, I will eagerly accept his endorsement.
>> Now, Senator Mitt Romney calls both of you friends and has said that he's not going to make an endorsement in this race.
What is the significance of somebody with the stature of Mitt Romney choosing not to endorse the incumbent Republican senator from his own state?
>> Well, Senator Romney can speak himself to the significance of that.
But I'll say it shouldn't surprise anyone that a senator like Senator Romney, who has remained committed to his oath to the Constitution, would not be supporting Senator Lee.
And so they're just two very different senators.
I'm grateful for Senator Romney's leadership in the Senate.
I consider him a close friend.
I know that if we prevail in this race, I'll work very, very closely with Senator Romney on most matters.
Utah and, in fact, every state should have two senators who take the approach of Senator Romney.
We have one, thankfully, but we need two, and that's why we're running to make a change here.
>> I want to quickly go back to January 6th.
Then Vice President Pence ultimately broke with Donald Trump and decided to proceed with the certification of the electoral ballots.
Now, Donald Trump lambasted his vice president, tweeting... And we all heard the rioters and their chants to hang Mike Pence.
I asked Senator Lee about that day, and here's what he said.
>> I have never seen a vice president more loyal and more supportive of the President with whom he's served.
>> So who was right about the Constitution in that moment?
Was that Mike Pence?
>> Mike Pence.
>> So Donald Trump was wrong about the Constitution.
And I think he got some very bad advice about the Constitution that day.
>> So Senator Lee says Trump was wrong about the Constitution.
Pence was right about the Constitution.
Vice President Pence has endorsed your opponent, Senator Mike Lee.
He has called him "the only conservative in the race."
If Mike Lee's actions after the 2020 election were so egregious, why would Mike Pence endorse him?
>> It's about power.
It's about power.
And, you know, Mike Pence did the right thing, thankfully, on January 6th, leading up to that day.
He had done a lot to justify the actions of a president who wanted to hold on to power, despite the will of the people.
And so he's not guiltless, either, in the effort to overturn the election.
The fact is, they both contributed to an effort to overturn American democracy in the weeks and months and years preceding January 6th, and they both should be accountable for that.
>> So there are a lot of scenarios that could play out on November 8th when it comes to control of the Senate.
But one scenario that is not so far-fetched is that Republicans win 50 seats, Democrats win 49, and you defeat Mike Lee.
Now, in that scenario, you have been clear that you are not going to vote on the next majority leader, since you won't be part of either party.
But you did state on January 6, 2021 that Mitch McConnell should "never be majority leader again."
So if you are in a position to block Senator McConnell, why wouldn't you do that?
>> Well, I'm not running to be a bootlicker for party bosses of either side.
And I am running specifically because I think we need leaders who will stand up to both parties and their leaders.
I'm not going to caucus with either side.
I will work with senators of both sides and I will work with leaders on both sides.
But I will also stand up to both.
>> Do you stand by your statement from January 6, 2021, that Mitch McConnell should never be majority leader again?
>> Well, I -- I will not be supporting party bosses in Washington.
I'm just not going to do it.
So it doesn't only apply to him, but, in general, my priorities are to defend American democracy, lower inflation, get our fiscal house in order, lower healthcare costs for Americans, protect our air and water, and ensure that we have a strong national defense.
Those are my priorities.
I will work with party bosses on both sides and members of both parties to get things done on those fronts.
But I will also be willing to stand up to party bosses on both sides, regardless of who they are.
We simply cannot go on as long as we have with both parties being at each other's throats, failing to get anything done, or when they do get something done, it's on a partisan basis.
And when the next party, when the opposing party regains power, they simply undo what the other party did while they were in power.
And that has had a destabilizing impact on our country.
We just can't continue that way and expect to compete with China and Russia and other non-state challenges that we face.
>> In 1971, on the original "Firing Line," hosted by William F. Buckley Jr., Buckley hosted his brother, James Buckley, after he had won an election to be the new senator from the state of New York.
And James Buckley was not a Republican.
He represented a third party, the Conservative Party.
>> The formation of a third party in a -- in a two-party situation tends to suggest, does it not, that there is either a breakdown in communication between the existing parties and the people or that three distinct points of view crop up, right?
>> That's correct.
One of the dangers we may be moving into in this country is that we are maybe working away, for the first time in our national history, from a general consensus as to what is good or what are the ideals, what are the values, what are the norms.
If you start questioning the very premise on which, say, the Constitution is sounded, then you are introducing some new elements into the political structure which make the two-party system impossible to cope with this new situation.
Then you start getting a fracturing, and then you start getting, I'm afraid, perhaps chaos.
>> In 2021, you spearheaded a letter with 150 other prominent conservatives about starting a third party, and the letter said that you intended to... Now, the Forward Party, begun by Andrew Yang, has formally endorsed you.
Is it time for a third party, Evan McMullin?
>> Well, I recognize the reality of an entrenched two-party system in our country, but I don't think it well serves our country.
It's left tens of millions of Americans feeling poorly represented, and I, frankly, would favor a multi-party system that would allow for better representation of more Americans and, I think, a healthier competition of ideas.
Whether that will develop and mature, I'm not sure.
It will depend, I think, largely on the direction of those two parties.
Will Republicans and Democrats be consumed by their extremes and move further to the fringes?
I just don't know.
I think the Republican Party is headed, certainly, in a direction towards the far right.
On the Democratic side, certainly the far left has gained a lot of influence within the party.
And if the parties, the two major parties, drift further to the extremes, I think it will create a lane, but more importantly, a demand for an alternative.
But I think the real determining factor will be what the two major parties do.
>> Evan McMullin, we'll be watching.
Thank you for joining me on "Firing Line."
>> Thank you.
>> "Firing Line with Margaret Hoover" is made possible in part by... And by... Corporate funding is provided by... You're watching PBS.