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.