Mike Lee’s position back home is turning the GOP civil war on its head.Tea party favorite Mike Lee roiled the GOP establishment four years ago when he knocked off a sitting senator on his way to the Republican Senate nomination in Utah.
Now, the establishment might strike back.
As the 43-year-old Lee plots his 2016 reelection bid, he is courting business leaders under the radar, hoping to head off a primary challenge backed by business leaders and other establishment figures in his home state, like billionaire Jon Huntsman Sr., an influential bank CEO and a former Utah GOP party chairman.
Some powerful establishment Republicans in Utah are tired of Lee’s hard-line positions. He stood with Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas last year when the federal government closed and again this month when they tried to take on President Barack Obama on immigration but ended up giving Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada leverage to confirm controversial nominations.
So as Lee fights to make sure he doesn’t become the first tea party senator ousted by the party establishment, he’s effectively turned the Republican intraparty war that has defined Senate primary politics for the past four years on its head.
“I think I’m going to be OK,” Lee said when asked about lingering concerns about his performance in Congress in corners of Utah’s business world.
Lee has made significant headway in some Utah establishment quarters — but threats are lingering.
Huntsman, who founded the petrochemical giant that bears his name, refuses to meet with Lee because of his “extremely radical” positions and is considering putting his political and financial muscle behind a primary challenger.
Scott Anderson, a prominent bank president in Salt Lake City, has privately commissioned polls to assess Lee’s race while meeting with some of his prospective foes to gauge their interest.
And one former state GOP party chairman, Thomas Wright, is actively considering a bid against the Utah freshman, while others in the business world are keeping the door open about a prospective bid.
“All I can say is Mike Lee is an embarrassment to the state of Utah,” Huntsman said in an interview, calling Lee “an extremist” for his role in the government shutdown fight that he said cost his cancer research institute millions in federal dollars and hurt small businesses affected by the closure of national parks. “He’s been a tremendous embarrassment to our family, to our state, to our country to have him as a U.S. senator.”
Huntsman, who has longstanding ties to Lee’s family, added: “He’s tried to come in and see me several times. … I have no interest whatsoever in chatting with him.”
Asked if he had a response to Huntsman, Lee simply said: “I don’t.”
What is happening in Utah marks a new chapter in the tea-party-vs.-establishment wars that have defined Republican politics since 2010. At that time, Lee seized on conservatives’ frustration with a veteran GOP senator, Bob Bennett, to win the party’s nomination and emerge as one of the country’s most prominent tea party senators. But after four years in Washington, where he’s aligned himself with the most conservative wing of the party, some Republicans are weighing whether there’s an opening to challenge Lee now as an insurgent bankrolled by the establishment — or whether they should wait until 2018, if veteran Sen. Orrin Hatch carries through on his pledge to retire.
In an interview, the 80-year-old Hatch said the current term would be his last “unless something very serious happened where I had to go forward.” Hatch, who said he “probably” will back Lee, said “it’s a little too early to make any judgments” on whether his junior colleague will have a serious fight on his hand.
Since last year’s shutdown, Lee’s poll numbers have rebounded while he remains beloved by the tea party right. In the meantime, his courtship of business and political leaders has paid some dividends, including winning the backing of another executive of a Salt Lake City bank and aggressively promoting his “conservative reform agenda” on issues ranging from tax reform to housing policy. He has held scores of townhall meetings and let voters air their grievances while detailing why he took his infamous stand with Cruz to defund Obamacare, a fight that led to the 16-day shutdown last year.
But his team knows full well that winning over the party establishment will be critical to heading off the prospects of a primary challenger.
“Sen. Lee’s biggest challenge politically has been a lack of a developed narrative for the establishment,” said Lee’s campaign chairman, Bud Scruggs, a veteran Republican operative with deep ties to insiders in Utah. Scruggs has attended at least two dozen meetings with the senator and business leaders over the past year. “I think the narrative is simply this: If you believe the country is headed in the right direction, you probably are never going to be an enthusiastic supporter of Sen. Lee. If you believe it’s headed in the wrong direction, then you need leadership in Washington, D.C., that has real reforms and real changes in mind.”
For now, Lee has reasons to be confident. He has a deeply enthusiastic base of thousands of conservative activists who dominate the party’s nominating convention, though prospective changes in the primary process could lessen their influence. Conservative groups like the Senate Conservatives Fund and Club for Growth are backing him, as is the main GOP establishment group, the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
“We are 100 percent committed to getting Sen. Lee reelected,” said Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker, the new chairman of the NRSC. “I think his chances are very, very good.”
A Brigham Young University poll this month showed Lee’s favorability rating at 52 percent — 12 points higher than during the government shutdown last year, while the Club for Growth, SCF and the Madison Project released a poll last week that showed the Utah freshman in an even stronger position with primary voters.
But in the BYU poll, just 32 percent of Utah voters believed that Republicans “should stand up to” Obama if it means that less work will get accomplished, while 66 percent called for more consensus building even if GOP groups are disappointed. That kind of message could create an opening for a prospective opponent.
“Business leaders who are successful learn to compromise and move forward as necessary,” said Lane Beattie, the president and CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce, who said he has had “strong encouragement” from the business world to run against Lee. “Strictly speaking on behalf of businesses, the frustration is when you have people who refuse … to work together to come up with solutions that can move us forward.”
A former state Senate president, Beattie said he’s not taking any steps toward running against Lee and would evaluate what happens in the new Congress before making any decisions. As part of his outreach, Lee has met regularly with Beattie and local Chamber officials, with Beattie saying he’s “confident” the senator is trying to do what’s best for the country.
“I believe that Mike Lee is extremely principled,” Beattie said. “But he has to, from a legislative standpoint in Congress, learn what it takes to make a change — make a difference. You can try all the bills in the world, but if you don’t get anything done, what’s the purpose unless you are influencing someone?”
To address that concern, Lee has joined forces with Democrats occasionally through his time in office, including with New York Sen. Chuck Schumer on a housing bill and with Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin on a bill to update nonviolent drug sentencing laws. And he’s pushing a conservative agenda well within the GOP mainstream on issues that include tax breaks for married couples, an overhaul of higher education policies and a reform of welfare programs.
Howard Headlee, president of the Utah Bankers Association, said Lee’s message of fiscal discipline plays well in the business world.
“He’s well-regarded with the base of the party, and his approval is going up; two years is a lot of time, and I think it’s only going to get better,” Headlee said. “He’s going to be the incumbent. Anyone who has aspirations is going to be disappointed.”
As part of his pitch to party elders, Lee has quietly wooed Harris Simmons, chairman of the board of Zions Bank, to back his bid, several sources said. (Simmons did not return phone calls.) But Anderson, who serves as president of that bank, appears to be still weighing his options. Anderson, one of the most influential forces in Utah GOP politics, has enlisted a prominent pollster in the state, Dan Jones, to assess Lee’s strengths and weaknesses.
In the aftermath of the shutdown, Anderson met with prospective foes to the Utah senator, including Rep. Jason Chaffetz, who declined to run, and others like Wright, the former state GOP chairman, who is considering a primary challenge. Sources said he has spoken with Josh Romney, the son of former Gov. Mitt Romney, and University of Utah political scientist Kirk Jowers, as well as Beattie. (Romney did not return multiple inquiries about his interest in the race, while Jowers declined to comment on whether he was considering a bid.)
Chaffetz said the polling “was very flattering to me,” but he made clear he had no intention of running in the Senate race and supported Lee.
“He’s a good friend, a good messenger of the conservative cause,” Chaffetz said of Lee.
A couple of months before this November’s elections, Anderson met with Huntsman in his Salt Lake City office to show polling Jones had conducted on the Lee race, detailing how the senator could be vulnerable with primary voters after the Utah GOP convention in 2016, according to Huntsman.
“I would suspect that not only Mr. Anderson, but several other leading business and professional people are looking for an appropriate candidate,” Huntsman said.
Whether Anderson gets behind Lee or a challenger remains to be seen. Anderson, who declined to be interviewed, “has been supportive” of Lee, plans to meet with him on Monday at the bank’s headquarters as part of their regular interactions and has held fundraisers for the senator in the past, according to bank spokesman Rob Brough. When asked if that meant Anderson would support Lee in 2016, Brough would not go beyond his statement.
Wright declined to discuss his meeting with Anderson, but he said he’s been encouraged by business leaders, GOP insiders and tea party activists to challenge Lee. If he ran, he would try to challenge Lee in the convention, Wright said.
“They tell me that they think Mike has done a lot of pandering in Washington, D.C.,” said Wright, a real estate executive in Park City. “They are frustrated because there are lots of costs, but the only result on the résumé right now is the shutdown — and we didn’t get anything for that.”
Lee, in the interview, downplayed suggestions that he’s been hurt by the shutdown. “My approval rating is pretty good right now.”
“I stand behind the people of Utah, and I want to protect their rights and protect them from this overreaching administration and from bad policies that make health care more expensive,” said Lee, an attorney who graduated from BYU law school in 1997.
Jones, the pollster, declined to say whether he has been tasked to conduct such surveys on Anderson’s behalf. But he noted that he polls the Senate race “all the time.”
“He could be vulnerable, but it would take somebody with some real money and great name ID to be able to defeat him,” Jones said of Lee. “It would be difficult to defeat him in the convention because most people that go there — they have a strong leaning towards the right. But if this Count My Vote remains legal, they have a primary, I think he becomes vulnerable, opposed by another Republican.”
What Jones is referring to is a law enacted in March that allows a candidate to get his or her name on the primary ballot in either of two ways: winning support by delegates at a party convention or securing 28,000 signatures.
The old system required candidates to only go through the convention, something that benefited Lee in 2010. Under that system, candidates would compete for the support of typically hard-core conservative party delegates; if no candidate reached 60 percent of support among the delegates, the two leading vote-getters would face off in a primary before a more diverse electorate. If one surpassed that threshold at the convention, the candidate would go straight to the general election.
The new law, known as Count My Vote, was pushed by a former Utah governor, Mike Leavitt, along with Jowers, who argued that more voters should be included in the process. The law is now being challenged in federal court by the Utah GOP.
If it survives the legal challenge, it could give way to a more moderate candidate to get onto the primary ballot, a potential threat to Lee. But Rich McKeown, a business associate of Leavitt’s who also helped lead the push on the initiative, said that the effort was launched before Lee was even a candidate in the 2010 race and is simply designed to change voter participation — “not candidate outcomes.” McKeown said Leavitt has not yet endorsed anyone in the 2016 Senate race “but there will be a time when he will.”
The new system could also benefit Lee. If a candidate skips the nominating convention, he or she could face backlash among the base and lose critical earned media, something that would be important to cut away at an incumbent’s name ID advantage.
There’s still a possibility, too, of Lee facing a potentially tough Democratic opponent in retiring Rep. Jim Matheson. But given the conservative leanings of Utah, most political observers believe Lee’s most serious threat remains in the primary.
Lee, who had just $350,000 in cash through the end of September, said he’s planning to step up his fundraising and would be prepared to compete in both the convention and gather enough signatures to be on the ballot.
“We’re prepared to fight under the new system, and I’m confident in my ability to defend my position,” Lee said.
Asked about his lack of money, Lee added: “It’s not easy — particularly when you’re out of cycle. But we are putting things in motion, and we’ll be in good shape.”
Whether prominent figures like Huntsman can persuade party elders to abandon Lee remains to be seen. Huntsman has long ties to Lee’s family, saying his “dearest friend in life” was the senator’s late father, Rex Lee, who served as Ronald Reagan’s solicitor general. Huntsman’s son, former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., hired Lee to serve as his general counsel. When the younger Huntsman ran for the GOP presidential nomination in 2012, Lee declined to endorse him in the primary.
But the 77-year-old Huntsman said his real concern is Lee’s policies and position during the shutdown, saying the senator is a “terrible disappointment” who did not follow in the footsteps of his father.
“I think there will be a major primary challenge against him,” Huntsman predicted.