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SALT LAKE CITY — Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson intends to vote for an independent candidate to serve in Congress rather than a Democrat for the first time ever this fall.
And the only candidate in the U.S. Senate race who shares party affiliation with the Democratic mayor might not get on the ballot at all if some in the party, including Wilson, get their way.
Wilson announced Monday that she is endorsing Evan McMullin in his bid to unseat two-term Republican Sen. Mike Lee. Not only that, Wilson called on Democratic state delegates to back McMullin support as well.
"When I first heard Evan was running, I was intrigued. I gave it some thought, and it was not a hard decision to back him," she said, noting a Democrat hasn't won a U.S. Senate race in Utah for more than 50 years.
Wilson, arguably the state's highest-ranking Democrat, and her father, Ted Wilson, both ran unsuccessful Senate campaigns during that time.
"Democrats are not winning," she said. "I just think we need to do things differently as Democrats."
Wilson is the second high-profile Democrat in Utah to throw her support behind McMullin, a former Republican who ran an independent, anti-Trump campaign for president in 2016. Former Democratic Congressman Ben McAdams also endorsed McMullin and is urging the Democratic Party to not put up a candidate for the 2022 midterm election.
Kael Weston, the lone Democrat challenging Lee, has called the effort to squeeze him out as a candidate in the Senate race "fundamentally disenfranchising." He said important policy issues would get lost if there is not a full ballot in November.
"Evan needs to take off the donkey costume. He's not a Democrat," Weston said in an interview last month.
Weston, who lost to GOP Rep. Chris Stewart in Utah's 2nd Congressional District in 2020, said Monday that there are no policy differences between McMullin and Lee. "I wish that were different, but it's not," he said, reciting a long list of issues including federal lands, voting rights, health care and taxes.
Weston said he has a lot of respect for Wilson, and that he doesn't take politics personally but takes it seriously.
"I don't think politics is about endorsements. Politics at its best is about helping people, and the people who are going to get hurt the most on key issues are ... the ones who work two and three jobs to pay rent, worried about grocery prices, take the bus to and from work," he said. "They care about Medicaid. They care about a living wage. They care about child poverty and the tax credit."
Elections are about voters and voter choices on Election Day, Weston said in a recent tweet.
"Let's all stay vigilant about the state of democracy globally, in the U.S. & in our Beehive State, but also inside the #UtahDemocraticParty," he posted.
Wilson, who ran for an open Senate seat against now Republican Sen. Mitt Romney in 2018, said she doesn't think the Democratic Party should field a Senate candidate in November.
"I would prefer that we have a Democrat but without an option to win, I think Democrats should align with progressive Republicans and moderate Republicans and elect an independent," she said. "I don't think Kael is electable."
Amid an effort to find a way to keep Weston off the November ballot, the Utah Democratic Party says it will leave the nomination of a Senate candidate to its convention delegates.
"What this would mean, is that the Democratic Party of Utah in an unprecedented way doesn't trust over half a million voters or believe that a certain number of people know better than our neighbors. I trust voters. I always will," Weston said, noting some 500,000 Utahns cast ballots for Democratic candidates in 2020.
Weston pointed to the party's constitution which states that it "shall nominate and assist in the election of Democratic Party candidates for public elected office."
Wilson said she believes there will be plenty of strong voices to discuss issues of concern.
"I guess you could say I care what will happen in November more than somebody making a point between now and then," she said.
Wilson said she doesn't believe support for McMullin signals that Democrats are throwing up their hands when it comes to electing members of their own party.
"I think this sends a message that we're pragmatic and we care about issues. And what we really need are moderate Republicans or independents to come to the table and represent the interest that the Democrats have been fighting for," she said.
In a time of extreme partisanship, Wilson said she's excited to see where a senator who places Utah before a party can take the state, and perhaps lead to more independent voices serving the country in the future.
"We are at a critical juncture, and I believe Democrats and Republicans need to choose to put duty to country before duty to party," she said.
Wilson said Lee has made it easier for Democrats to back McMullin.
"Mike Lee is quite often one of very few members to vote against something or in favor of something that goes against the interests of the state. I think his interest in aligning with (Texas GOP senator) Ted Cruz and acting really in line with the right makes it easier for Democrats to say, 'Hey, this isn't an option for us anymore. Let's do something different,' Wilson said. "I don't think you would see this if this were Romney."