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In Utah, a Trump Loyalist Sends an S.O.S. to Romney, of All People

The appeal carried the unmistakable whiff of desperation. That it was delivered on live television only heightened the dramatic tension.

A Utah Republican, Senator Mike Lee, was publicly begging a fellow Utah Republican, Senator Mitt Romney, for a simple act of solidarity: an endorsement in his campaign for re-election. One that, in Mr. Lee’s telling, could amount to no less than an act of salvation, as he battles for political survival against an unexpectedly fierce challenger, the independent candidate Evan McMullin.

“Please, get on board,” Mr. Lee said, looking into the camera and addressing Mr. Romney by name on Tuesday night. “Help me win re-election. Help us do that. You can get your entire family to donate to me.”

But Mr. Lee and Mr. Romney are not merely fellow Utah Republicans. And this was not just any television show.

What Mr. Lee was not ignoring, however, was a new poll published in Utah’s Deseret News this week showing Mr. Lee leading Mr. McMullin 41 percent to 37 percent, with 12 percent undecided. Self-described moderates made up a plurality of those undecided voters, as the center of Utah’s political spectrum seems to be agonizing over which candidate to coalesce behind.

“We are winning this race, and Mike Lee is panicked,” Mr. McMullin said in an interview on Wednesday.

Credit…Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

In fact, Mr. McMullin’s task of uniting independents, Democrats and anti-Trump Republicans remains daunting in Utah, a state that gave Mr. Trump 58 percent of the vote in 2020. When Mr. McMullin ran for president in 2016 as an independent, he netted 21.5 percent in his home state. (One of those voters was Mr. Lee.)

Jason Perry, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah, which conducted the poll, stressed that Mr. Lee “is still in the driver’s seat,” but, he said, with so many centrist voters still undecided, “this is one still to watch.”

The FiveThirtyEight polling average still has Mr. Lee up by 7.6 percent.

“Let’s be clear, Mike Lee is leading this race,” said Matt Lusty, an adviser to the Lee campaign. “Every reliable poll shows Senator Lee with a significant lead, and our internal polling gives us even greater confidence in the strong support he has across the state.” Mr. Lee himself declined to comment.

But no contest in the country is as closely tied to the failed efforts to deny President Biden’s victory as the Utah Senate race. And no other race is as squarely centered on the fate of representative democracy.

Mr. Lee appears particularly spooked by the $3.3 million in campaign contributions — a small portion of that through ActBlue, an online Democratic fund-raising tool — that have flowed to Mr. McMullin, who has vowed to caucus with neither party if he wins.

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How Times reporters cover politics. We rely on our journalists to be independent observers. So while Times staff members may vote, they are not allowed to endorse or campaign for candidates or political causes. This includes participating in marches or rallies in support of a movement or giving money to, or raising money for, any political candidate or election cause.

Mr. Lee was exaggerating a little when he told Mr. Carlson, “Evan McMullin is raising millions of dollars off of ActBlue, the Democratic donor database, based on this idea that he’s going defeat me and help perpetuate the Democratic majority.” But his fears were clear.

Mr. Romney, who declined to be interviewed for this article, has explained his decision not to endorse Mr. Lee or Mr. McMullin by saying “both are good friends.”

But the personal divide between him and Mr. Lee over the events surrounding the 2020 election remains deep, and is playing a role now, according to Stuart Stevens, a senior official in Mr. Romney’s 2012 presidential run who is also an outspoken critic of Mr. Trump and his supporters.

Mr. Romney became the first senator from a president’s party ever to vote to convict him after Mr. Trump’s 2020 impeachment trial, when he sided with Democrats to try to throw Mr. Trump out of office for abuse of power, for conditioning military aid to Ukraine on President Volodymyr Zelensky’s launching an investigation into Mr. Biden.

Mr. Romney again voted to convict Mr. Trump in 2021 for inciting the attack on the Capitol.

Mr. Lee, in contrast, was an active participant in the effort to keep Mr. Trump in office. He cheered Mr. Trump on for weeks in late 2020, and privately offered in a text to the White House chief of staff, Mark Meadows, “a group of ready and loyal advocates who will go to bat for him.”

Mr. Lee also endorsed a plan to have legislatures in “a very small handful of states” carried by Mr. Biden put forward pro-Trump electors, as part of a scheme to allow Vice President Mike Pence to reject Mr. Biden’s victory.

Ultimately, Mr. Lee backed away from those plans and voted to certify Mr. Biden’s election, unlike eight of his Senate colleagues, a point that the Lee campaign stresses.

But turning against a plan as it was failing does not exonerate him, Mr. McMullin argues.

“Senator Lee, who called himself a constitutional conservative and who swore an oath to the Constitution, betrayed the Constitution in an effort to overturn the will of the people by recruiting fake electors to topple American democracy,” Mr. McMullin said in the interview. “It was one of the most egregious betrayals of the American republic in its history.”

Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

It is, in some sense, that inconstancy that has gotten Mr. Lee in trouble: his willingness to challenge the powers in his own party, then tack back when his base demands it.

“Reaping what he sowed is a good way to put it,” quipped Christopher F. Karpowitz, co-director of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University.

Mr. Lee led the floor fight to stop Mr. Trump’s nomination at the 2016 Republican National Convention, called for Mr. Trump to exit the race after the “Access Hollywood” tape surfaced, and voted for Mr. McMullin in protest. Then he became one of Mr. Trump’s staunchest supporters.

“Politics is an ongoing character test, and the people of Utah are going to have to ask themselves if he’s passed,” said Mr. Stevens, the former Romney aide.

How real a threat Mr. McMullin poses to Mr. Lee’s re-election remains to be seen. Both sides produce internal polls that serve their purposes, Mr. Lee’s showing him with a double-digit lead, Mr. McMullin’s showing him barely overtaking the incumbent.

It’s entirely possible that Mr. Lee’s dire-sounding appearance on Fox News proves a reprise of the pleas that Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, made toward the end of his 2020 re-election run as he watched his Democratic opponent, Jaime Harrison, rake in a record $57 million for his challenge: All panic aside, Mr. Graham ultimately won by more than 10 percentage points.

Still, Representative Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, one of two Republicans serving on the House Jan. 6 Committee, will campaign with Mr. McMullin next week in Salt Lake City, trying to rally disaffected Republicans, a crucial bloc after Utah Democrats decided not to field their own candidate. The state’s most important Democrats, Mayor Jenny Wilson of Salt Lake County and former Representative Ben McAdams, are backing Mr. McMullin.

Though Mr. McMullin says the preservation of democracy is the organizing theme of his campaign, he has branched out to tar Mr. Lee as “the most ineffective member of the Senate,” contrasting his ideological stands with Mr. Romney’s productivity.

And, as Mr. Lee’s campaign tries to project an air of confidence, his appearance on Mr. Carlson’s show projected anything but.

Pressing Mr. Romney to do the right thing as a Republican, he repeatedly warned Fox viewers that Mr. Romney’s mere neutrality could give Mr. McMullin — “a closeted Democrat,” as he put it — a victory, and ensure continued Democratic control of the Senate.

On Wednesday, Mr. Lusty, the Lee campaign adviser, said his boss still hoped that Mr. Romney would come around. “Senator Lee sees it as important for all members of the party to stand together,” he said.

But if Mr. Lee had truly hoped to change Mr. Romney’s mind, there were few avenues likely to be less persuasive than Mr. Carlson’s show.

As Mr. Lee spoke, Mr. Romney’s picture was shown with a beret and handlebar mustache crudely superimposed, over the caption “Pierre Delecto Strikes Again” — the nom de plume Mr. Romney once got caught using on Twitter.

“Mitt Romney has stood up to withering criticism from Trump and others,” said Mr. Karpowitz, the B.Y.U. professor. “I’m not sure Tucker Carlson is going to move him.”

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