With national Tea Party candidates dropping like flies as their challenges to more-traditional GOP candidates fail this election year, Utah’s Sen. Mike Lee seems to be reassessing his own political future.
And maybe making his conservative politics a bit more acceptable in Utah.
It is generally assumed that Lee will see a few serious intraparty challengers come his 2016 re-election.
It will be Lee’s first re-election since he and Tim Bridgewater took out U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett in the 2010 state GOP convention – a defeat that stunned national Republicans in Washington, D.C., and heralded that year’s rise of the Tea Party’s power within the Republican Party.
But Lee has been seen as an outlier – at least in the U.S. Senate – as he’s been a close associate of Texas’ Sen. Ted Cruz, the pair blamed for the fall 2013 shutdown of the federal government.
In fact, Lee’s conservative politics and the government shutdown may well be part of this year’s U.S. House 4th District race.
In their first debate, Democrat Doug Owens really took out after Republican Mia Love over the whole Mike Lee issue.
Love attended at a “support Mike Lee” rally soon after last year’s government shutdown, when Lee was getting a lot of national heat, and more than a little back here in Utah.
UtahPolicy spoke to a close Lee associate whose been informally advising Lee in recent months – on condition Lee’s friend’s name not be used.
This fella – who has had a long history of local political work – says Lee is not now “running to the middle” in national GOP politics, and probably won’t.
“(Lee) has been seen mainly through the prism of the government shutdown. And he is now making the effort to have people see a more complete, a more total, view of him.”
Lee, of course, has no problem with support from the conservative base of the Utah Republican Party.
The many standing ovations during his address to the May Utah Republican state convention – before the 6,000 or so delegates and friends – clearly shows that.
But more than a few GOP Utah strategists – or politicos – believe there is an opening against Lee, at least now.
And it appears it will be Lee’s challenge to get Utah’s GOP-inclined voters to get to know him better over the next two years.
Whether one calls it “moderating” or not, Lee has been trying to define a way forward for himself and what he calls the “constitutional conservative” movement.
Others may call it the Tea Party movement.
Here is Lee’s recent address to a national Tea Party group.
And he repeats what he said to the Heritage Foundation several months ago: That the Tea Party movement must move beyond just saying what they stand against (just about anything Obama-like) and define what they stand for.
But Lee is also pushing an almost populist ideal: That Congress and Washington, D.C., has to fight against what he calls “cronyism” – or the beltway insider form of influence and governing, which is harming America, evening threatening our Democracy.
Lee is even saying that he never wanted a federal government shutdown at all, but did want to repeal Obamacare and force Congress to make a real attempt at fighting the nation’s growing debt.
“You won’t see the candidate elasticity” in Lee over the next two years that you saw in Sen. Orrin Hatch in 2012 – where Hatch ran to the right so quickly he almost got whiplash, says the Lee advisor.
“I don’t see (Lee) moderating. I do see him making a bigger effort in communicating.”
And trying to prove more than that “he only hits the “no” button.”
“You haven’t seen much of Lee’s reform agenda in Utah – it has gotten a lot more play in Washington. But I think you will” over the next two years.
Lee’s job approval ratings, especially just after the government shutdown, are not great.
Here is another poll show some weakness.
But there is still two years to go before Lee’s 2016 re-election effort – an eternity in American politics.
“Lee is one of the most principled people I know,” says this advisor. “And there is no moderating there.”
Maybe a different Lee tone.
Certainly greater attempts to get Utahns to listen to what he has to say.
But the basic Lee ain’t going to change.