Meet Evan McMullin, the Ex-CIA Operative Taking Trump Votes in Utah

Meet Evan McMullin, Turning Reliably Red Utah into a 2016 Toss-Up 0:47

An independent conservative who calls himself "the opposite of Trump" is giving the Republican presidential candidate a run for his money in Utah, a state that has reliably voted red for more than 50 years.

Evan McMullin, 40, is a former CIA operative who was once the chief policy director of the House Republican Conference — but he decided to leave the party after he realized the GOP's problems "are too deep" to resolve in this generation's lifetime, he told NBC News.

His platform is based on differentiating himself from the main-party candidates, who he argues are more similar than they are different from each other.

Image: Evan McMullin
Evan McMullin, an independent presidential candidate, adjusts his jacket during a staff meeting near Salt Lake City. McMullin, a Brigham Young University graduate, former CIA officer, investment banker and congressional aide, is running as a third-party conservative. Rick Bowmer / AP

"The short-hand is I believe both Trump and Clinton are from the left side of the political spectrum in most ways," he said. "Both want to grow the size of the government. I'm the only conservative in this race. I favor a limited government."

His alternative governing views, and his Mormon faith, have attracted so much support among Utah voters that in a survey conducted earlier this week by Salt Lake City-based Y2 Analytics, McMullin was in a statistical tie with Trump and Clinton.

The survey, conducted after lewd comments made by Trump in 2005 surfaced, showed Clinton and Trump tied at 26 percent, McMullin with 22 percent, and Libertarian Gary Johnson holding steady at 14 percent, according to Utah's Deseret News.

The support, McMullin said, is as much about his policies compared to Clintons' and Trump's as it is about his character.

"I think the American people know that both of these options are awful, and they're looking for something better. That [Trump] tape really crystallized that sentiment for a lot of people. I consider myself the opposite of Trump in a lot of ways, both in terms of a lot of policies, and in terms of temperament and judgment," he said.

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McMullin, along with his running mate Mindy Finn, doesn't have much of a shot at actually getting elected — he's only on the ballot in 11 states and a write-in option in 23 others — but political experts say his rise in Utah is notable.

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"This is completely different than anything we've ever seen," Christopher Karpowitz, co-director of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University, told NBC News. "I think there is just widespread frustration with Donald Trump and really with both of the candidates from the two major parties, so Utahns, including many who have typically voted Republican, are casting about for some other alternative."

McMullin, Karpowitz added, fits a "particular set of needs in this state: people who don't feel like they can in good conscience vote for Trump, but they're not ready to vote for Hillary Clinton, either."

Former CIA Agent Evan McMullin Launches Presidential Campaign In Salt Lake City
Former CIA agent Evan McMullin announces his presidential campaign as an Independent candidate on Aug. 10 in Salt Lake City, Utah. George Frey / Getty Images file

But political watchers aren't ready to predict a win for McMullin in Utah, which hasn't strayed from its Republican roots since 1964 — even with big-name Republicans such as Rep. Jason Chaffetz and Gov. Gary Herbert withdrawing their support for Trump in recent days.

"I still think it's unlikely that he takes the state of Utah," Jason Perry, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah. But for Clinton and Trump, he said, "I think it's going to be closer than anyone could have expected." And losing the state's six Electoral Votes could seriously complicate Trump's ability to win the 270 needed to win the White House.

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McMullin, who was born in Provo, Utah, graduated from BYU and then went to get a business degree from the University of Pennsylvania before serving as a Mormon missionary in Brazil. As a CIA operative after Sept. 11, 2001, he spearheaded counterterrorism and intelligence operations overseas for a decade.

His connection to the Mormon church has given him a particularly strong foothold among Utah's broad Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints community in a way his fellow third-party competitor hasn't been able to attain.

"Many Utahns feel they know exactly what they're going to get from McMullin as a candidate," Perry said. "Gary Johnson has just not played very well in the state of Utah."

Whether he wins or not, McMullin says he fears for the future of the GOP.

"I seriously doubt the Republican party is viable as a political vehicle going forward. I think it will shrink in size, I think it might become a white nationalist party if Donald Trump supporters remain active after the election," he said. "It's time for a new generation of leadership."