(RNS) Independent Evan McMullin has virtually no shot at winning the White House.
The Utah Republican is on 11 state ballots. He has no major-party backing, and he’s little known outside of the Beehive State.
But Mormon disaffection with Donald Trump is offering the Provo-born graduate of Brigham Young University a chance to disrupt the outcome in this reliably red state, which has not gone to the Democrats since 1964.
Long before the release of Trump’s “Access Hollywood” tape and the sexual assault allegations, many Mormon voters have been repelled by Trump and unable to warm to his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.
A fellow Mormon who jumped into the presidential race on Aug. 8, McMullin has caught their fancy. The 40-year-old former CIA agent worked as a Republican congressional staffer and then as an investment banker at Goldman Sachs.
Three different polls conducted in Utah in the past week show McMullin in either a statistical tie with Trump and Clinton, or beginning to catch up to them. A strong performance from McMullin could give him the state’s six electoral votes or hand the state over to Clinton.
Reached by phone, McMullin said neither Trump nor Clinton makes the case for limited government, and so he is taking the mantle as the one true conservative.
And while he is critical of Clinton’s policies, he is downright repulsed by Trump.
“He has said and done some vile things,” said McMullin, citing Trump’s treatment of women, minorities and people with disabilities. “We absolutely must reject him. This man is a threat to our democracy.”
Trump’s troubles among Mormons, who make up 63 percent of Utah residents, have deepened over the course of the campaign. A religious minority with vivid memories of persecution, many Mormons were turned off by Trump’s call last year to ban Muslims and refugees from entering the country.
“We know an attack on one religious group’s liberty is an attack on all of our liberty,” said McMullin. He talks about helping minority communities through education, criminal justice and poverty reform.
Earlier this month, the Deseret News, which is owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, called for Trump to drop out of the presidential race.
Max Perry Mueller, assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Nebraska, said McMullin has presented himself as a vote that conservative Christians can make without moral guilt.
“Before the sexual assault allegations surfaced, they were willing to hold their nose and vote for Trump … but they just cannot do so any longer in the post-Trump-tape world,” said Mueller. “They’d rather go to the polls and vote in the affirmative for someone else, and not be tainted by a vote for Trump.”
He added that as Trump’s path to the presidency narrows, more conservatives might be willing to support McMullin, particularly Mormons who are “grossed out completely by Trump and want to raise up one of their own as a conservative movement savior.”
Utah Sen. Mike Lee’s former chief of staff, Boyd Matheson, said McMullin is a conservative who showcases a type of servant leadership that rings true to Mormons.
McMullin talks about building a “new conservative movement” and is passionate when speaking about abortion, race relations and religious liberty. Abortion, he has said, is a “clear violation” of the right to life.
“There cannot be a compromise on that; if there’s one thing that should be holy in this world, it’s life,” said McMullin.
While he is well-known in Utah, McMullin has very little name recognition nationally and has never held elected office.
Still, on Oct. 15 the McMullin campaign expected 150 people at an Idaho event. More than 1,200 showed up and the event had to be moved to accommodate the crowd, according to a campaign operative.
Perhaps as telling, other evangelicals are warming to him.
Alan Noble, editor-in-chief of Christ and Pop Culture, said McMullin won him over with his views on racial injustice, abortion and religious liberty. Noble said Christians should vote for McMullin to show that “we aren’t going to be bullied into supporting a sexual abuser” who has shown signs of racism.
McMullin has received support from The Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol, National Review’s Jonah Goldberg and The Resurgent’s Erick Erickson.
Mere Orthodoxy founder Matthew Lee Anderson said a lot of his evangelical friends are planning to vote for McMullin.
“The Mormons in this election cycle have just been heroes,” said Anderson. “They have been one of the most consistent bastions of opposition to Donald Trump within the world of politically conservative constituencies in religious America.”
Former Utah Lt. Gov. Greg Bell endorsed McMullin last week after hosting an event for him at his home. Bell said the candidate charmed his guests.
“The fundamental test for me is character, and neither Clinton and especially Trump can overcome the barrier of character,” said Bell. “I am not going to vote for someone to fill Abraham Lincoln’s chair who doesn’t have integrity and American values.”
(Lorena O’Neil is a freelance journalist based in New Orleans)