SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — Mike Pence, just 13 days before the election, flew into one of the most conservative states in the country to avoid an upset at the hands of Republican voters hesitant to back his running mate, Donald Trump.
“There are only two names on that ballot that have a chance to be president of the United States of America,” Pence declared to the rowdy crowd of around 1,300 at his Salt Lake City rally Wednesday night.
Pence’s late play to secure the state in the GOP ticket’s win column is an attempt to stave off the rising notoriety of Evan McMullin, the conservative, Mormon, former chief policy director for the House Republican Conference and CIA officer who will appear as an independent candidate for president on the ballot in Utah.
McMullin fired back after Pence’s campaign stop, tweeting: “A vote for Pence is a vote for Trump, and a vote for Trump is a vote for religious bigotry, misogyny, and the expansion of government.”
Many Utah Republicans, including top lawmakers from the state, have expressed an unwillingness to vote for Trump. Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said earlier this month he would not vote for the GOP ticket, and Sen. Mike Lee called on Trump to exit the race.
“Nobody knows anything about [McMullin’s] background besides he’s CIA and went to BYU,” said Charlene Booth, a Mormon from Farmington, Utah, who drove in for the Pence rally. “This is a plan to bring Trump down. They’re a part of the con."
The vice presidential candidate indirectly compelled the crowd to reject voting for McMullin, or Libertarian Gary Johnson, by asserting it would only aid Clinton’s chances at pulling off an upset in the state.
“A vote for any candidate other than Donald Trump, bottom line, is a vote to make Hillary Clinton the 45th President of the United States,” Pence said, eliciting boos throughout the room. “So it’s time to come home. It’s time for Republicans to come home. Come home to vote for the Trump-Pence team.”
Late Wednesday night, Utah’s U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, who pushed for Trump to end his campaign after the release of the 2005 Access Hollywood tape, tweeted that he will ultimately vote for Trump — but refuses to endorse or defend the mogul.
Since joining the GOP ticket this summer, Pence has worked to bring wary conservative lawmakers and voters back to supporting Trump’s candidacy. In September, he attended a conservative ideas summit hosted by Sen. Lee, and drew the adulation of Gov. Herbert, who introduced the candidate to the stage at that event.
But with less than two weeks until the election, Pence — outside of Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes and U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador of Idaho — was left to defend his ticket as new polling from key battleground states indicates the Republican ticket must make up ground in the coming days.
“Let me tell you Utah: Don't buy it. Don't be fooled. This race is on,” Pence told the crowd. “We are all knotted up here in Utah. It is all knotted up in America, and we are going to drive all the way to the finish.”