Source: BuzzFeed News
SALT LAKE CITY — When Mike Pence took the stage for a campaign rally last week in this most improbable of 2016 battleground states, he came with a request for the assembled Trump supporters: Pray.
“I know many of you in this room do what… I do from time to time — you bow the head, you bend the knee,” Pence solemnly intoned to the crowd at the Infinity Event Center. “It’d be a good time to do it in the next 12 and a half days.”
Indeed, Donald Trump could use some divine intervention in Utah. With less than a week to go until Election Day, his campaign has found itself scrambling to eke out a win in America’s reddest state — lining up last-minute Mormon surrogates, privately pressuring GOP officials not to defect, and openly going to war with an insurgent third-party candidate.
Don Peay, Trump’s Utah chairman, acknowledged in an interview with BuzzFeed News that the race is unprecedentedly close. “The state is more politically divided than it’s ever been,” he said.
Several recent state polls show Trump tangled up in a tight three-way race against Hillary Clinton and independent conservative Evan McMullin, a Utah native and ex-CIA officer who has drawn considerable support from his fellow Mormons. While it’s unlikely the Beehive State will play a deciding role in the election’s outcome, it remains a fact that almost any realistic path for Trump to 270 electoral votes will require a win there.
Trump appeared to acknowledge his growing risk of defeat in Utah — a state that every Republican presidential candidate has won since 1964 — during an interview with Fox News over the weekend. Speaking to Bret Baier, Trump lashed out at McMullin and accused him of being a “puppet” for Bill Kristol, the Weekly Standardeditor who has been a leading voice in the #NeverTrump movement.
“The guy takes votes away from me,” Trump complained of McMullin. “You know, we’re going to win Utah. But he takes votes away from me, this man who I never heard of… Now, if for some reason we lose Utah, that could have a very devastating impact on the overall.”
The interview marked first time Trump has publicly weighed in on McMullin — but behind the scenes, Trump’s team has been working furiously for weeks to beat back the conservative challenger and lock down Utah, according to half a dozen sources with knowledge of the effort.
People close to Trump say his campaign first began worrying about Utah in March, after he suffered a resounding third-place defeat in the state’s Republican caucuses. Once Trump became the nominee, he made a few token appeals to the state, but there were other battlegrounds that more urgently demanded their attention — and besides, his team was confident that conservative Mormons would eventually “come home” to their party.
Then, last month, the Access Hollywood tape leaked, and all hell broke loose. Prominent Republicans across Utah denounced the nominee and withdrew their endorsements in rapid succession. The state’s Mormon newspaper called on him to drop out of the race. Trump plummeted in the polls, McMullin surged, and the Clinton campaign — apparently sensing an opportunity, or perhaps just rubbing it in — added several staffers to their Salt Lake City office.
“I think the state is up for grabs,” said Utah-based Republican operative Reed Galen. “I’m not sure how [Trump] can lock it down easily at this point.”
In recent weeks, Team Trump has undertaken an aggressive — and occasionally bumbling — effort to keep Utah red.
The most high-profile element of this project has been Pence’s surprise swing through Salt Lake City last week. According to one knowledgeable source, there was some discussion of sending Trump instead, but the idea was ultimately discarded as advisers worried that the candidate’s high “unfavorable” rating in Utah would make the visit counterproductive. Pence ended up using his time to deliver a boilerplate pitch for party unity. But the onstage presence of two former LDS church leaders — Julie B. Beck and Robert Oaks — caught the attention of the Mormon Twittersphere and so-called “bloggernacle,” emboldening Trump’s boosters in the intra-faith political debates taking place on social media.
The Trump camp has had some other tactical successes here as well. Last month, as their candidate faced a wave of denouncements and disavowals from Utah’s top GOP officeholders, McMullin moved to pick off some of their endorsements. According to two knowledgeable sources, several leading political figures in the state considered signing on with the surging candidate, but Trump’s allies quietly exerted their influence in Utah.