Mike Lee looks to carve a niche on the campaign trail

Reporter October 17, 2011

Mike Lee is anything but patient.

One year into his tenure as the Senate’s youngest member, the 40-year-old Utah Republican has been busily trying to carve out a conservative niche on Capitol Hill and wade into Senate primaries across the country, offering his endorsement to like-minded candidates.

That playbook sounds familiar: The Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call asked in an article last week whether Lee is “the new Jim DeMint,” and Lee acknowledges that comparing him to the high-profile South Carolina Republican made some sense.

“It is a similar approach,” Lee said in a recent interview, though he added, “I wouldn’t say that I model myself after any particular colleague.”

Lee got to Congress by helping to unseat incumbent Sen. Bob Bennett at a Utah Republican Party convention in 2010, and now he’s on the lookout for candidates who remind him of himself.

Lee said he has a fondness for hopefuls “who are in a similar position in that they’re in many cases unknown or less known than others that they’re running against. That causes me to be sympathetic because I’ve been there.”

Last week, the political action committee Lee created, the Constitutional Conservatives Fund, announced its endorsement of Daniel Bongino, the former Secret Service agent and political novice mounting an uphill challenge of Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D) in Maryland.

Bongino is the fourth Republican Senate candidate to win Lee’s backing. He’s also endorsed Ted Cruz in Texas, Don Stenberg in Kansas and Rep. Jeff Flake in Arizona. All three men face competitive primaries, with Cruz and Stenberg squaring off against candidates who have drawn some establishment Republican support.

DeMint has made a name for himself in part by backing underdog Republican candidates, some of whom won their Senate contests last cycle — including Lee, Marco Rubio (Fla.), Rand Paul (Ky.) and Pat Toomey (Pa.) — and others who did not, such as Christine O’Donnell (Del.) and Sharron Angle (Nev.).

“I talk to him all the time,” Lee said of DeMint, explaining that while they do sometimes discuss candidates, he’s not necessarily following DeMint’s lead.

DeMint, for his part, is pleased with Lee’s record so far.

“I endorsed Mike because I believed he wouldn’t sit idly on the sidelines and pass the buck to others, and he hasn’t disappointed,” DeMint said. “He understands that we’re close to losing what has made our nation exceptional for two centuries, and he’s willing to risk ruffling a few establishment feathers to fight to preserve freedom for future generations.”

The question for Lee, however, is whether he might be putting the cart before the horse, going around the country handing out his endorsement before he’s built up a record and reputation that would make his support worth having. DeMint, for example, spent six years in the House and now seven in the Senate establishing a conservative brand.

“I can’t see Mike Lee being the deciding factor in a race, but among hard-core Republicans, they might know who he is,” said Nathan L. Gonzales, deputy editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

An endorsement, Gonzales said, “has the potential to help Mike Lee more than it does to help the actual candidate.”

Lee’s profile isn’t that of the typical “outsider.” His father, Rex Lee, served as U.S. solicitor general. When Mike Lee was young ,his Mormon “home teacher” — a mentoring role — was current Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.).

As an adult, Lee served as counsel to then-Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. (R) and clerked for Supreme Court Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. before jumping into the 2010 Senate race to challenge Bennett.

Now Utah Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R) is up for reelection — facing some of the same criticisms from conservative and tea-party affiliated groups as Bennett — and Lee isn’t going to endorse anyone.

“I don’t have any intention of getting involved in that race in one way or another,” Lee said.

Lee and Hatch have worked together to advance a balanced budget amendment in the Senate, and Lee has been an outspoken supporter of the “cut, cap and balance” approach to deficit reduction.

Lee voted against the spending resolutions in April and September, as well as the bill to raise the debt ceiling in August. But he has voted with the majority of his party on most issues, and has not sought to slow many bills or nominations on the floor.

By striking his own path and mostly not engaging in the Senate’s clubby atmosphere, Lee has given no indication so far that he hopes to rise into the party leadership or a committee chairmanship someday.

Lee said he wasn’t concerned with what his future in the Senate holds.

“That is not something that I think about at all,” he said. “I’m focused on going about how to become a good senator.”

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