"Come Home" to Trump, Pence Will Tell Utahans

"Come Home" to Trump, Pence Will Tell Utahans
H. Scott Hoffmann/News & Record via AP
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With coals still smoldering from Donald Trump’s most recent public salvos against Republican leaders, his running mate, Mike Pence, will stress the case for party unity in Utah — a reliably Republican state suddenly in jeopardy for the Republican nominee.

Recent polling has shown Utah trending in favor of a surprise candidate: former House GOP staffer Evan McMullin, who is running unaffiliated and appealing to conservatives who do not wish to support Trump. McMullin, a Mormon who was born in Utah, has gained particular traction with his message among the state’s robust Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints community.

At a rally in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Pence will warn in particular against supporting McMullin and other third-party candidates, stressing that “if you’re not voting for Donald Trump, you are in effect voting for Hillary Clinton,” an aide said.

Pence previewed that theme in an interview Tuesday with MSNBC, saying, “It’s time for Republicans to come home, to come home to elect the Trump/Pence team to the White House." 

Such a unity message would not be unusual, if not for recent tensions that have played out in public between Trump and Republicans. Some Republican candidates and lawmakers have renounced Trump’s candidacy, while others urged the GOP nominee to drop out of the race — an outcry set off by a tape that surfaced this month of Trump making lewd remarks about women with TV host Billy Bush. The backlash was particularly pronounced among Utah Republicans: Gov. Gary Herbert and Rep. Jason Chaffetz pulled their endorsements, while Sen. Mike Lee, who had not endorsed Trump, urged him to quit the race.

In two tweets earlier this month, as Lee and other Republicans sought to distance themselves from Trump and his flagging campaign, Trump panned House Speaker Paul Ryan as “weak and ineffective” and other Republicans as “disloyal.” 

Embodying this intraparty turmoil is McMullin, a Republican in exile during Trump’s rise to the top of the party. McMullin is betting his long-shot candidacy on Utah voters feeling as he does: that neither Trump nor Clinton represents his values.

"People in this region understand that these two choices are unacceptable for our country and that we need something better, so our message is resonating here especially well," McMullin told the Deseret News this month.

An upset by McMullin would be historic: Utah has backed Republican candidates for president since 1964, when the state went for Lyndon B. Johnson. Meanwhile, a state has not awarded electoral votes to a third-party candidate since 1968, when George Wallace won five southern states on a pro-segregation platform.

Historic, however, does not mean impossible — and the Trump campaign is treating this possibility with fresh urgency, putting a campaign that has eschewed party unity in the awkward position of promoting it.

"I know some people think it makes them proud to take a stand, but from a political and pragmatic standpoint it's stupid," Don Peay, a prominent Trump supporter from Utah, told reporters after last week’s debate in Las Vegas. "This makes us look sophomoric politically, from a national standpoint. And it makes it look like we're throwing away a vote." 

It will now fall to Pence, who built his political career as a respected voice among religious conservatives, to make that case to Utahans. His message, an aide said, will appeal not only to pragmatism, but also to values, “to remind people that our opponent and her campaign have expressed disdain for Catholics and have disrespected evangelical Christians.” Hacked emails from the account of Clinton Campaign Chairman John Podesta, published recently by WikiLeaks, showed Jennifer Palmieri, Clinton’s campaign communications director, joking with an ally about Catholics and evangelical Christians.

Pence’s visit to the Beehive State on Wednesday will mark his second of the general election; his first, in August, was not billed as a campaign event, although Pence did pitch his ticket during remarks at a policy summit hosted by Lee. Pence also met with LDS Church leaders and Herbert — who, since rescinding his endorsement, now says he plans to vote for Pence over Trump. 

This swing will kick off with a fundraising event on behalf of Trump and Republicans, even as the campaign is reportedly winding down its big-dollar fundraising. 

At a rally to follow, an aide said the campaign expects turnout for Pence on par with or exceeding the Indiana governor’s largest solo events of the election cycle.

“There are a lot of people in Utah who are very excited to see him,” the aide said.

Rebecca Berg is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at rberg@realclearpolitics.com.


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