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SALT LAKE CITY — Kael Weston comes at the U.S. Senate race from a different angle than most candidates looking to win an election.
As a Democrat, he knows he faces an uphill battle in Utah where voters have not elected a member of his party to the Senate for more than 50 years. Weston says he's also pushing against the notion among some in the state that the Democrats shouldn't field a Senate candidate at all this year.
"I find that fundamentally disenfranchising," he said, noting more than a half-million Utahns voted for Democrats in 2020. "There are very important policy issues that get lost if we don't have a full ballot and I think that's what Utah voters deserve."
Former Democratic Rep. Ben McAdams endorsed independent candidate Evan McMullin, a conservative and former Republican, as the only viable option to unseat two-term GOP Sen. Mike Lee. McAdams has urged "principled" Democrats, Republicans and independents to get behind McMullin, who will be on the November ballot.
The Utah Democratic Party says it will leave the nomination of a Senate candidate to its convention delegates.
"When it comes to any contested nomination contest, the party can't take sides. Until the delegates have voted and made their choice at convention, we are bound by our rules to remain neutral," said Ben Anderson, party spokesman.
Weston doesn't begrudge McMullin running, but there would be only two names for voters to choose from if it were up to him.
"My ideal ballot, not just as a candidate for U.S. Senate but as a voter in Utah, would have two names on it: Becky Edwards and Kael Weston. Kael Weston, Dem. and Becky Edwards, Rep.," he said.
Edwards, a former state legislator, is among the Republicans challenging Lee for the GOP nomination. Weston, who donated $200 to Edwards' campaign, said he hopes she gets it because she is a better reflection of who Utahns want to believe they are.
"The best thing for the state would be to retire Mike Lee in the June primary and to make sure a Democrat is on the ballot," Weston said.
Tactically, Weston said, running against Lee would be easier than running against Edwards because the senator has a "political rap sheet." But if voters, in the end, were to choose Edwards, Weston said, he would walk away from the campaign saying, "We did the right thing. We had a real dialogue. We had a real campaign trail across (Utah's) 29 counties."
Though he calls himself a proud Democrat, he said he doesn't believe his party or the federal government has all the answers.
Weston's name might be familiar to Utahns in the 2nd Congressional District. He ran against Republican Rep. Chris Stewart in 2020. The first-time candidate ran a sound campaign, winning nearly 37% of the vote but had little chance to unseat the incumbent.
Weston sees a scenario where he could win the Senate seat with about the same percentage he garnered in the 2020 election. He points out that a three-way Senate race between a Democrat, a Republican and an independent in 1958 ended with Democrat Frank Moss winning with 38.7% of the vote. Moss held the seat until now-retired Republican Orrin Hatch beat him in 1976 and held the job for 42 years.
A Utah native who grew up in Orem and graduated from the University of Utah, Weston jumped into the Senate race on Jan. 27, the National Day of Remembrance for downwinders. The day was significant to him because his father was a downwinder from the tiny southwestern Utah town of Milford who died of cancer last May.
One of Weston's goals is to make sure the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act that Hatch championed in 1990 doesn't die. It's set to expire this summer.
Passing voting rights legislation, preserving the Affordable Care Act and helping working families, especially in rural communities, are on his list of priorities.
"I wake up thinking about the Utahns who get up early and get home late and do it all over again," he said. "My campaign is going to be focused a lot on the hard-working families of Utah who, when government fails or when policies aren't balanced, they get hurt the most."
Weston cites two main reasons for launching a Senate campaign.
"We need to be better neighbors to each other. I'm really concerned about division in the country. Jan. 6 was a wake-up call and I don't want our country to get closer to more political violence," he said.
Weston spent nearly 11 years with the U.S. State Department, including seven years in Afghanistan and Iraq where he worked to build bridges between warring parties. He believes those skills prepared him to find areas where Utahns and Americans can come together. He identified water, managing growth, infrastructure and housing affordability among his "bridge" issues.
Since leaving the State Department, Weston has taught at Marine Corps University. He also wrote a book about his diplomatic experience titled "The Mirror Test: America at War in Iraq and Afghanistan."
The redrawing of the state's congressional districts, which Weston said favors Republicans, also compelled him to run.
"After the gerrymander, a lot of people wake up and they're demoralized. I think apathy is what I'm also battling. I think it's unhealthy if only one party is on the ballot," he said.
Weston said he wants to support and boost the morale of down-ballot Democratic candidates, especially those in rural Utah who might see running in decidedly red Utah as hopeless.
"There's no better friends than Democrats in rural Utah because it's a hard place to be," he said.
Weston has an affinity for rural parts of the state and spends a lot of time outside of the Wasatch Front. He said doesn't believe the state's congressional delegation reflects most Utahns' "healthy, balanced" view of managing public lands. Many residents, he said, want a lot of "oxygen" in the conversation and not just one side of the argument.
"Honestly," he said, "I think we need people in the Senate who still ride a mountain bike, hike, camp, know how to get on a trail and take a lot of water with you and find your way back."