Salt Lake City — Less than two weeks from Election Day, Republican vice-presidential nominee Mike Pence stopped here for a campaign rally on Wednesday afternoon.
Here, as in Utah.
A state Republicans have carried in every presidential election since 1968.
A state Mitt Romney won with 73 percent of the vote in 2012, John McCain won with 63 percent of the vote in 2008, and George W. Bush won with 73 percent of the vote in 2004.
A state where Republicans have controlled both chambers of the legislature for four decades; where Democrats haven’t won the governorship since 1981; and where Republicans currently control every statewide office, both U.S. Senate seats, and all four congressional districts.
This is where the GOP ticket is campaigning 13 days before the election.
There is no shortage of empirical, quantitative evidence to demonstrate that Trump has alienated portions of the Republican base — and that as a result, Hillary Clinton has become the overwhelming favorite to win the presidency. But nothing says more about the state of the race — and the fractures inside the GOP — than Pence’s taking an October 26 detour through perhaps the most conservative state in the country.
Time is a precious resource for presidential campaigns, especially down the home stretch of an election. Under normal circumstances, Trump and Pence would be spending virtually all of their time in the four states that will decide who wins the White House — Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and North Carolina — and scattering their remaining visits between other less-critical but still-important battleground states.
These aren’t normal circumstances. Trump has proven deeply unpopular in Utah, largely due to the state’s sizable Mormon electorate, which has consistently rejected his candidacy. (The Republican nominee hasn’t broken 40 percent in a single poll of the state.) As a result, he isn’t just in danger of giving this state away to Clinton; he could also lose it to Evan McMullin, a Mormon ex-CIA official and Utah native who is running as a third-party conservative and is breathing down his neck.
The Real Clear Politics average shows Trump ahead by 5.5 points in the state, but that’s skewed by a single CBS News/YouGov survey showing him leading by 17. The three most recent polls show Trump up one, McMullin up four, and Trump up one. When Republicans chart various paths to 270 electoral votes, Utah’s six have long been considered automatic. With Trump atop the ticket, that’s no longer the case.
This puts Trump’s campaign in a predicament, forcing his brain trust to choose between two bad options. Either they ignore Utah and risk losing its six electoral votes by a slim margin that could have been avoided with a last-minute play; or they divert time and resources to make the last-minute play, and in doing so invite unflattering news reports of what it says about Trump’s campaign.
After weighing these options — which, according to campaign sources, were the subject of intense disagreement inside Trump Tower — they chose the latter.
That said, campaign officials in New York agreed that Trump himself shouldn’t step foot in the state; his visit would likely do more harm than good. Pence, a devoutly religious Evangelical, was the infinitely better option. Plus, he was already set to campaign on Wednesday in Nevada and then Colorado. He was planning to fly over Utah; it was the perfect time for a quick stop.
Such was the backdrop when Trump’s running mate arrived here Wednesday afternoon and stood before a noisy crowd of roughly 1,000 people packed inside a small, wooden-floored event center in this city’s downtown. A series of introductory speakers delivered rah-rah lines bashing Clinton and touting Trump’s shake-up-the-system mentality — all the trappings of a typical campaign event.
But it wasn’t typical. Many of the speakers sounded more worried about McMullin than Clinton, and devoted roughly equal time to decrying the candidacies of both. Tana Goertz, a Trump-campaign adviser and former Apprentice contestant who emceed the event, set the tone early by calling McMullin’s campaign “a joke” and urging Republicans not to back the third-party hopeful.
Pence alluded to the GOP’s internecine warfare in his remarks, describing how Trump has been fighting “all on his own” to win the White House. With a closing argument aimed at assuaging the lingering concerns of on-the-fence Republicans, however, Pence claimed that the party is now finally “coming together” behind its nominee.
His presence in Utah, however, suggested otherwise — as did the absence of the state’s Republican leadership.
Indeed, the most jarring aspect of Wednesday’s rally was the visible lack of party support. Despite its being the GOP ticket’s first — and likely only — campaign event in Utah, none of the state’s top elected Republicans were present. Not Governor Gary Herbert. Neither Senator Mike Lee nor Senator Orrin Hatch. And none of the four congressmen: Rob Bishop, Chris Stewart, Jason Chaffetz, and Mia Love.
Utah’s state GOP chairman led the pledge of allegiance, and the state’s speaker of the House delivered the final, brief introduction of Pence. Yet in contrast to Clinton and Tim Kaine, who are campaigning across the country with local party officials and down-ballot candidates, Pence was on his own Wednesday.
The best Trump’s campaign could do was bring Raul Labrador, a tea-party congressman from neighboring Idaho, across the border for a fiery speech. Labrador, a Mormon, graduated from Brigham Young University and has ties to this state. He was invited at the last minute on Wednesday morning, a campaign official said, and he joined the other speakers in criticizing McMullin’s candidacy.
The only other federal lawmaker in attendance was Pence’s friend Jeb Hensarling, a congressman from Texas. He did not speak at the event.
Pence’s speech was largely boilerplate, pitching Trump as a strong, fearless visionary who embodies “the spirit of America.” He urged attendees to get their neighbors to the polls on Election Day. And he asked Republicans to “come home” and support the GOP ticket, despite reservations about his running mate.
It was unclear whether Pence would tailor any of his remarks to address the unique situation in Utah. At he moved to closure, however, he did precisely that, clarifying that while he respects the right of anyone to vote for any candidate, “This is not the time to make a statement. . . . There are only two names on that ballot that have a chance to become president of the United States of America.”
Without mentioning McMullin specifically, Pence continued: “A vote for any candidate other than Donald Trump is a vote for a weaker America at home and abroad. A vote for any candidate other than Donald Trump is a vote for an America that continues to walk away from our highest ideals of life and liberty and the Constitution. A vote for any candidate other than Donald Trump, bottom line, is a vote to make Hillary Clinton the president of the United States of America.”
At this, the audience unleashed its most boisterous ovation of the afternoon. It had the sound of a collective release of pent-up frustration — not just with McMullin for mounting a spoiler bid in Utah, but with the state’s most powerful Republicans for turning their backs on the party’s presidential nominee.
This anger seems unlikely to abate in the immediate aftermath of a Trump defeat next month. The degree to which grassroots Republicans blame the party’s elite for torpedoing Trump and facilitating a Clinton presidency could go a long way toward determining how quickly the GOP’s wounds begin to heal — or whether they close at all.
In this sense, Utah could be the canary in the coal mine. No state saw more of its Republican leaders abandon Trump; Lee, the junior senator, even called on him to quit the race. At the same time, roughly half of the state’s GOP voters have split from the party entirely to support a candidate who more closely aligns with their values. None of this was lost on the pro-Trump crowd Wednesday afternoon — and none of it may soon be forgotten.
As Pence whipped his audience into a frenzy with calls for party loyalty, one man’s voiced boomed from the back of the room and drowned out the rest: “Mike Lee sucks!”