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Utahns Who Voted Third-Party In 2016 Face Another Tough Choice


Now to Utah, a deeply red state where Republican presidential candidates usually get overwhelming support. But in 2016, Donald Trump only got about 45% of the vote there. Many conservative voters turned to Evan McMullin, a former CIA officer and a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who crafted an independent run. From member station KUER in Salt Lake City, Sonja Hutson reports on what those voters are thinking about today.

SONJA HUTSON, BYLINE: Sixty-four-year-old Debra Coe settles into a brown plastic Adirondack chair underneath fruit trees in her yard. She lives in Lehi, about a half-hour outside Salt Lake City.

DEBRA COE: I have always been a Republican. And I stayed a Republican, a pretty devoted Republican, up until 2016.

HUTSON: Coe is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and says she couldn't support Donald Trump because of what she sees as moral shortcomings, like making fun of a reporter with a disability at a rally.

COE: If you're going to be president of the United States, there needs to be some moral values. And I'm just not seeing it with him.

HUTSON: Like about a fifth of Utah voters in 2016, she voted for McMullin as an alternative to both Trump and Hillary Clinton. But this year, she's voting for Democrat Joe Biden.

COE: I'm not a huge fan of Biden, but I think I would much rather have him than Trump at this point because of - those are just core things, the way he's dividing our nation, that I think is really problematic.

HUTSON: Reed Galen is a Utah-based co-founder of The Lincoln Project, a conservative anti-Trump political action committee. He says many Mormon Republicans, like Coe, are the reason Trump has less support than other Republicans. But some will not be able to choose between Trump or Biden like Coe has.

REED GALEN: They're not going to bring themselves to probably vote for a Democrat for president. But they're also not going to, in their own mind, endorse Donald Trump's behavior or failure by casting their ballot for him.

HUTSON: Among them is Josh Cooper. He voted for McMullin in 2016 and says this year he supports Libertarian Jo Jorgensen.

JOSH COOPER: Whether they're going to win or not, they're a big underdog, I don't care. I'm going to be able to stand Judgement Day and say, hey, I tried to make the best decision I could.

HUTSON: But his wife, Terra Cooper, voted for McMullin in 2016 and is enthusiastically voting Democrat this year. She says maybe she's been a liberal her whole life but was in denial because she grew up in a conservative part of Utah. Trump, becoming head of the Republican Party, made her feel like she could finally leave.

TERRA COOPER: It swung me from - I felt like it was a moderate to I would say I'm a Democrat socialist because of social justice issues, because of environmental issues.

HUTSON: As for McMullin himself, he says he's voting for Biden to, quote, "put country over party." But despite Republican opposition to Trump, there's very little chance the state will flip. The president is polling much better here than he was in 2016. Many Republicans say they focus on Trump's actions rather than his behavior, like Jimi Kestin in southern Utah.

JIMI KESTIN: I look at what his actual policies are and I could really care less about his tweets or his style of speech.

HUTSON: Some Utah Republicans, like Senator Mitt Romney, have never reconciled with Trump's behavior. But several 2016 skeptics, including Senator Mike Lee, have come around in the past four years and now embrace the president.

For NPR News, I'm Sonja Hutson.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOOSETAF'S "BY THE FIRE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sonja Hutson is a politics and government reporter at KUER. She’s been reporting on politics ever since the 10th grade, when she went to so many school board meetings the district set up a press table for her. Before coming to Utah, Sonja spent four years at KQED in San Francisco where she covered everything from wildfires to the tech industry. When she’s not working, you can find her skiing, camping, or deeply invested in a 1000 piece puzzle.