Salt Lake City — When al-Qaeda attacked the US on 9/11, Evan McMullin was a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) trainee preparing for a career in counter-terrorism that would take him from South Asia to the Middle East. Now, five years after his retirement from the spy agency, the Utah native is working to defeat what he sees as another serious threat to the US: Donald Trump.
The former Mormon missionary entered the race in August as a third-party candidate after Republicans leading the Never Trump movement failed to recruit a conservative alternative to the mogul. A strong aversion to Trump in Utah, which last voted for a Democrat five decades ago, has transformed McMullin from a complete unknown to a serious contender who could become the first independent to win a state since George Wallace in 1968.
As national polls tighten ahead of the election, Utah’s six electoral college votes could be critical in the race for the White House. A McMullin victory would narrow Mr Trump’s path to 270 votes, the number of delegates needed to win the race. More dramatically, if he stymied both main candidates from reaching 270, it would throw the selection of the president to the House of Representatives.
In an interview in his bare-bones office in Salt Lake City, McMullin told the Financial Times that he decided to jump into the race against the long odds to defend conservative principles, saying he was "strongly opposed" to Trump and Hillary Clinton, whom he described as "terribly corrupt and self-serving people" unfit to lead the US.
"Donald Trump poses a threat to our democracy in his allegiance to Vladimir Putin and appreciation for other authoritarians," Mr McMullin said. "He is one of them in fact. He has attacked people based on their race and religion or their gender. We need to stand up to both of these two candidates and offer the American people a better choice."
Voters in Utah, a conservative state where more than 60% of the population are Mormon, increasingly agree. The latest poll showed 30% preferred McMullin, just shy of the 32% supporting Trump but more than Clinton’s 24%. One recent survey gave him a four-point edge over Trump, however, raising the prospect that Utah might shun a Republican nominee for the first time since Lyndon Johnson beat Barry Goldwater in 1964.
He has taken support equally from Trump and Gary Johnson, the Libertarian party candidate. In August, Trump conceded that he had a "tremendous problem" in Utah, which overwhelmingly backed Mitt Romney, the highest-profile Mormon in the US and a vocal Trump critic, over Barack Obama in 2012.
Concerns about Trump’s morality sparked a 14-69 loss in the Utah caucus to Ted Cruz, his worst result in the Republican primaries. After the emergence of the video in which he discussed groping women, the Mormon church newspaper known as the Deseret News urged him to quit, saying his words were "evil" and his characteristics "the essence of a despot".
Speaking at Weber State University after an event featuring McMullin, Jennilyn Stoffers described herself as one of the many conservative voters leaning his way. "These are the two [people] we have to choose from out of 300-million people in our country?" she said. "There are some people who are willing to say, ‘hey, why don’t we try something new’."
Republicans from the Utah congressional delegation, including Mike Lee, a senator whom Trump had floated as a possible Supreme Court justice, have been some of the most vocal critics of the New York businessman.
Underscoring the threat McMullin poses, some Trump fans have accused him of being part of a "Mormon mafia" in cahoots with Romney. On Saturday, days after running mate Mike Pence campaigned in Utah, Trump called McMullin an unknown "puppet" of his Republican critics, spurring the former CIA operative to tweet: "@realDonaldTrump, Yes you’ve never heard of me because while you were harassing women at beauty pageants, I was fighting terrorists abroad."
After a report on Monday that a Trump fan had recorded an automated message calling him gay, which contravenes Mormon doctrine, McMullin said it was "another desperate attack" as Trump lost ground in Utah.
Ben McAdams, the Democratic mayor of Salt Lake County, attributed Trump’s unpopularity to his divisive rhetoric on everything from women to religion. "Part of the reason that Mormons left the east and migrated to the west was to be able to get away from the discrimination and violence against us as a group," he said. "We do have this public consciousness and sensitivity to discrimination of any kind. So when Trump speaks out against Muslims or against women, against any faith group, that really is something that we have a visceral reaction against."
Clinton is trying to capitalise on the unease about her rival by sending surrogates to Utah, including Donna Brazile, head of the Democratic National Committee, who last week rolled into Salt Lake City on a coach emblazoned with "America is better than Trump" as part of a 20-state tour.
Speaking after the event, McAdams said Democrats were making unprecedented efforts in Utah, which reflected the unusual race, but they faced an uphill climb. "Many Utahns have never voted for a Democrat for president and I’m not sure that they’re ready to do it quite yet," he said. "A vote for Evan McMullin is half a step away from Trump and people are stepping back and saying ‘this is not someone we in good conscience can support for the presidency’."
© The Financial Times Limited 2016