How Lee Beat Back a GOP Challenge in Utah

Some of Sen. Mike Lee’s biggest critics within the Utah Republican Party are now members of his campaign commitee. National Journal takes an in-depth look at how Lee turned erstwhile foes into allies.

Reports Andrea Drusch:

This time last year, Sen. Mike Lee faced calls for a chal­lenge with­in his own party. But after a quiet cam­paign of per­sua­sion with­in the Utah Re­pub­lic­an Party, the first-term con­ser­vat­ive has all but shut down the pro­spect of com­pet­i­tion at next year’s state GOP con­ven­tion.


Through a series of face-to-face meet­ings in the spring, along with a stra­tegic staff change, Lee trans­formed some of Utah’s in­flu­en­tial busi­ness lead­ers from some of his biggest foes to some of the first names on his cam­paign com­mit­tee. And Lee’s ef­fort to unite Utah Re­pub­lic­ans be­hind him has been suc­cess­ful enough that that cam­paign com­mit­tee has ac­tu­ally slowed down its activ­ity six months from the con­ven­tion where he looks set to win nom­in­a­tion.


Lee, a tea-party fa­vor­ite who un­seated in­cum­bent GOP Sen. Bob Ben­nett in his 2010 cam­paign, drew the ire of Utah’s es­tab­lish­ment lead­ers for push­ing the 2013 gov­ern­ment shut­down. Most not­ably, in Decem­ber 2014, Zions Bank pres­id­ent Scott An­der­son and former state party chair Jon Hunts­man Sr. called Lee an “em­bar­rass­ment” and an “ex­trem­ist,” and they told Politico they were seek­ing a can­did­ate to run against him. An­der­son, one of the biggest polit­ic­al in­flu­en­cers in the state, com­mis­sioned sur­veys from Utah poll­ster Dan Jones show­ing Lee as vul­ner­able in a primary. 


Yet just three months later—after a hand­ful of can­did­ates turned down the op­por­tun­ity to chal­lenge Lee— An­der­son’s name ap­peared on a list of co­chairs re­leased by Lee’s reelec­tion cam­paign, along with Hunts­man’s son, former Gov. Jon Hunts­man Jr. In that re­lease, An­der­son praised Lee for “[col­lab­or­at­ing] on an agenda fo­cused on mean­ing­ful re­form.”


What happened in between, Lee’s al­lies say, was a bit of small-state dip­lomacy. In meet­ings set up by his friends in the busi­ness com­munity, Lee wooed his crit­ics in Salt Lake City’s busi­ness elite, a re­l­at­ively small group, but one with out­sized polit­ic­al in­flu­ence in the state. By win­ning over fig­ures such as An­der­son and Hunts­man, Lee ef­fect­ively chilled the am­bi­tions of any­one hop­ing to run against him with the state’s es­tab­lish­ment’s back­ing.