PARK CITY — It's a crisp October night in Deer Valley, with a fine mist hanging over the mountains. Through the large, glowing windows of Howard Wallack's estate, you can nearly see the twinkling lights of Main Street down below, and the steep winding road that Mike Lee should be traveling on at this very moment to get here, to one more campaign stop on his inevitable path to the U.S. Senate.
It's not exactly a Mike Lee crowd here in Wallack's house. The host is sipping wine, griping about how socially conservative the Republican Party has become, and across the room, under a piece of obscure modern art, a bearded constitutionalist is making his case that Mike Lee isn't conservative enough. These are Mike Lee's constituents, the ever-evolving amoeba of dissatisfied voters that make up the modern-day Republican Party.
At half past eight, Lee makes his entrance, trailed by a small entourage that includes his wife. Lee uncaps a bottle of water, takes a swig, and after a brief introduction ("The next senator from the state of Utah!") he launches into a scathing takedown of Barack Obama, the federal government and the Washington establishment. "It's time to take our party back," he says.
Why Lee is here at this Summit County Republican fundraiser isn't clear. There are probably 25 people in Wallack's house, and most are running for some kind of local office. Lee has their votes, and considering that he's outraked his challenger 10 to one, he doesn't need their money.
This is Mike Lee's campaign in the final stages of the most momentous senate race in Utah in a generation. While Lee is still touring the state, it's more of a victory lap than anything. The election is over. The national pollster Nate Silver recently predicted there's a 99.9 percent chance Lee will win. Barring some kind of epic scandal, or a natural disaster that prevents everyone in Utah and Davis counties from voting, Lee will become the next senator from the state of Utah.
What Lee's campaign has become (a leisurely stroll down the home stretch) is a stark contrast to what it was in the days and weeks before the Republican Party convention, where in a stunning upset that made national headlines, delegates unseated the three-term incumbent Bob Bennett. Bennett's defeat was seen as a victory for the insurgent tea party movement, and when Lee locked up the Republican nomination in a June run-off against Tim Bridgewater, he was immediately christened one of its national leaders by the likes of USA Today
The question, then, isn't whether Mike Lee will win, it's what he'll do once elected. Keeping the fickle voters of the Republican Party happy won't be easy, especially considering all the promises of change Lee has made. Freshman senators typically have little to no influence in Congress. Lee thinks he can change that. He's working to build a coalition with other tea party candidates that he says will bring radical reform — perhaps even term limits and a balanced budget amendment — to Washington.
But political insiders say it's unlikely he'll do much of significance in the senate, at least in his first term. In the senate, seniority governs everything — the committees you sit on, the arms you can twist to get votes, the bills you get to sponsor. "Mike will have a choice of joining with a few like-minded people to try to have more strength and power in numbers, or to work with a greater number of Republicans and Democrats on certain issues that will allow him to have a far greater influence on many more issues," says Kirk Jowers of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah. "I hope he chooses the latter."
The question, Jowers says, is whether Mike Lee wants to make a difference, or whether he simply wants to make a point. Either way, he's bound to disappoint somebody.
Mike Lee keeps his campaign headquarters in a nondescript strip mall just a few miles from his home in Alpine. Inside the office, there is little of the frenetic energy typical of high stakes campaigns — no ringing phones, no harried staffers, no panic at the prospect of losing.
Instead, Mike Lee looks relaxed. Just 38 years old (he will become the youngest senator in the country if elected), he has a boyish face highlighted by quick perceptive eyes that seem a window into a mind that's always churning. Of the half dozen or so of Lee's friends interviewed for this story, almost every one described him as "the smartest guy in the room."
Lee was born in Arizona in 1971, the fourth of seven children Rex and Janet Lee (now Chamberlain) would have together. When Mike was just four years old, his father, who would go on to become a much beloved and almost legendary president of BYU, was selected solicitor general under President Ronald Reagan, meaning he would be arguing Supreme Court cases for the White House. The family moved into a D.C. neighborhood full of prominent political figures. Strom Thurmond's daughter rode the bus with Mike, and Robert Byrd lived down the street. Harry Reid, the Democrat senator from Nevada, was in the same LDS congregation and served as the family's home teacher, a position in the church.
Mike had a happy childhood of campouts and backyard barbecues, of shoveling snow with his dad for extra money around the neighborhood and jumping off the deck with his older brother. He was an easy-going and naturally happy kid, his mother says, but he had a serious bent even as a boy. "From the age of 3 on he'd follow me around the house asking why, not just to ask — he really wanted to know the answers," his mother Janet says. "Often he'd ask questions he was too young to know the answers to, like, 'Dad, if heat rises why is there snow on top of the mountains?' He wasn't making a pest of himself, he really wanted to know the answers." He rarely watched television, opting instead for visits to science museums and historical landmarks in the D.C. area. His dad often invited him to watch him argue cases before the Supreme Court and when they'd get home, over the dinner table with the rest of his siblings, they'd discuss the merits of both sides.
"He learned a real respect for different points of view," his mother says. "He'd watch his father argue cases but be friends with the lawyers on the other side. Senator Reid was in our home a lot and he'd listen to the senator and his father talk, and although they had differing views, because politically they were not aligned, he could see the camaraderie that existed between the two of them and the respect they had for each other."
When Mike was in high school, the family moved to Utah, where Mike became the opinion editor of the Timpview High School newspaper, writing editorials about heady subjects like the Iran-Contra affair, abortion, and sometimes, just to keep his readers happy, something local like the state of the school district's finances.
"I remember the first time I met Mike I walked into journalism class and there were all these seniors," Mike's wife Sharon recalls. "I was the only sophomore in the class and I was a little intimidated. He came up to me and said, 'Hi, you're the new girl. I hear you're smart.'
"He was very much aware and very conversant in things that were going on. He had a natural attraction to the world around him."
After an LDS Spanish-speaking mission to Texas, Mike returned to BYU. By then Mike's father had become the university president, and Mike would eventually become the student body president.
"Mike had a great sense of humor," says his friend Jay Jorgensen, a D.C. attorney who served as an assistant to the president with Mike during their Texas mission. "I remember once I came over to study and I was nervous, because I was in the house of the president of the university, and we're sitting there at this table and Mike hands me this jar of nuts. I go to reach for it and the lid just comes apart in my hands. It's like this fine porcelain and I'm thinking, 'I just broke something in the university president's house.' And Mike's just cracking up, putting the pieces of the lid together. Apparently I wasn't the first person he'd played that joke on."
Mike's father had been diagnosed with cancer years before, and while Mike and the rest of his family had maintained a positive outlook, it was now clear that the disease would take his father's life. As Rex Lee's health deteriorated, Mike drove his dad to his appointments and served as his courier, bringing him correspondence to sign once he was too sick to leave his hospital bed. Just a few days before his father died, sitting in a wheelchair and breathing through an oxygen tube, Rex Lee argued a case before a Denver district court regarding a campus housing policy that directly affected BYU. Mike helped him prepare, a memory he cherishes to this day.
"There was a great burden of sorrow when his father died because of the realization that his boys wouldn't growing up knowing him," Janet says. "And that he wouldn't have this relationship he'd always hoped to have with his dad."
When Mike's father died, it left him with a deep emptiness, Janet says, but in the long run, it infused his life with a greater sense of purpose and meaning.
"It was traumatic for him," says Clark Gilbert, who served as a student body vice president with Mike at BYU. (Gilbert is now CEO of the Deseret News). "But I think it drove him to succeed even more, like there was unfinished business in his father's life."
Sometimes, when Mike is driving, he'll listen to cassette tapes of his father arguing Supreme Court cases, says his friend, Congressman Jason Chaffetz.
"This isn't just a son influenced by his father," Gilbert says. "This is a son who watched every step, who wouldn't just learn around the dinner table but would read briefs, and would go the Supreme Court with his father, talking about the constitution. When Mike talks about his love for the Constitution, it's not just something he says. This is deep in his DNA."
Back in his campaign office, Lee says he always saw running for elected office as a possibility, but didn't expect it would come this early in his life. Like many of his supporters, Lee says he felt alarmed at the direction the country was heading after the election of Barack Obama and worried that Utah's congressional delegation, and specifically Bennett, weren't doing enough to reign in a federal government that was growing larger and more powerful by the day.
The convention was a raucous affair, with delegates lustily booing Bennett, who had voted for the Wall Street bailout, and breaking into ecstatic cheers when he lost. Some political observers said they saw a level of anger and incivility at the convention that they had never before witnessed in Utah politics.
"I wouldn't say it was anger," Lee says. "It gets labeled that because it's a pejorative word. I'd say it's more of a frustration. There's a level of frustration with the perpetual expansion of federal government, the burgeoning debt and the increasing power the federal government wields. It's creeping into every aspect of people's lives."
Lee gladly wears the tea party label, even though he's hardly an outsider to the political process or the halls of power. He's also much more sophisticated and nuanced in his positions than tea party candidates are often made out to be by the media. "He's not somebody who I would think would be from the tea party," says his friend Josh Reid, who is trying to help his dad, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, fight off a challenge from tea party candidate Sharron Angle. "I mean, what I see from the tea party out here is very angry, and that's not Mike. He's not the sort of guy who goes to rallies and holds picket signs. He's a much more intellectual guy."
Reid says he's also seen Lee shift more to the right since running for office, and others say he's moved back to the center since winning the nomination. But for the most part, Lee is very much aligned ideologically with the tea party. He seems convinced that the biggest problem facing the American government is, well, the American government.
"It's just gotten too big. We have a $1.5 trillion debt that gets bigger every day," he says. "What's at stake is our very way of life. Everything we hold dear is being threatened."
If this rhetoric sounds familiar to long time political observers in Utah, it should. In 1976, a young lawyer with no political experience ran on the same platform against an entrenched incumbent and made many of the same promises Lee is making now. His name was Orrin Hatch. The connections don't end there. Lee's first taste of the rough and tumble world of politics came as a Senate page under Hatch when Lee was 16.
To truly make a difference for Utah, political insiders say Lee should continue to model himself after Hatch, who actually did make a name for himself as a freshman senator when he successfully led a filibuster against an AFL-CIO backed labor law. Four years later, Hatch was made chairman of the Labor and Human Relations committee.
Hatch was the exception to the rule, though. More typical of freshmen senators is the experience of Bob Bennett, who focused on fringe issues his first term, like privacy of medical records and the "Mexican Peso crisis." "Senators with decades of seniority were not about to let a newcomer steal their spotlight," Bennett told the Deseret News earlier this year.
If Lee really wants to help Utah, he'll establish relationships with pragmatic senators on both sides of the aisle, says Matthew Burbank, a political science professor at the University of Utah.
"In the Senate, Bennett was equally important as Hatch, especially with funding issues. He asked himself, how can I get things done, how can I help my state? If someone needed funding, they'd go to Senator Bennett," Burbank says. "Part of the difficulty that Mike Lee will be faced with is that he has run largely as an ideological candidate — he feels like he's got these clear principles that he wants to support and defend. If you say you won't engage in earmarks or engage in pet projects, and say 'I'm more interested in reigning in the size of government,' it's hard to help your state because you establish a reputation as someone that it is hard to get help from."
Burbank says Lee has a choice: he can help the people of Utah, or he can pursue the ideals he's set forth during his campaign.
Lee is convinced he can do both. He says he regularly talks to Jim DeMint, the unofficial head of the tea party movement in the Senate, and that he's met or talked with other leading tea party Senate candidates, including Marco Rubio and Rand Paul.
"Can one person make a difference out of 100? No," Lee says. "But I won't be just one person. I'll be aligned with a number of other people who share these same principles. They can ignore one person, but they can't ignore 10."
Mike Lee bounds up the stage with a warm smile and takes the microphone. It's a beautiful fall afternoon at a park in Orem, and this is Mike Lee's kind of crowd. Kids are jumping on an inflatable bounce house, clowns are making balloon animals, and the smell of grilling hot dogs and burgers filters through the air. All of the state's Republican heavy hitters running for office are here, including Gov. Gary Herbert and Rep. Chaffetz. Lee spent much of his childhood and high school years in Provo, and he now calls Utah County home. It's also where the bulk of his funding and support comes from.
As Lee starts to speak, a few people wander over to the white folding chairs set up in front of the stage.
"We've elected a president who thinks he's a king," Lee shouts to warm applause. "It's our government, and it's time to take it back."
It seems that few people at the park are paying attention. Instead, they're shaking hands with the governor or waiting for a moment with Chaffetz or milling about the park, trying to track down their kids.
These are Mike Lee's constituents, and they are the party faithful. He will undoubtedly disappoint some who will think he's too conservative, and others who will think he's not conservative enough. But he's their guy. They unseated a three-term senator to give him a shot. And by this point, they've all heard what he has to say. Now they want to see what he will do.
Faces of the tea party
If Mike Lee is elected to the Senate he says he will help form a coalition of like-minded senators called the "Tea Party Caucus." Here are some of the main players in the movement.
Marco Rubio, Florida
Rubio has taken advantage of voter anger in Florida over federal spending and health care legislation. Polls in Florida show him edging incumbent Democrat Kendrick Meek and Charlie Crist, who is now running as an independent. DeMint's PAC has given Rubio over $540,000.
Rand Paul, Kentucky
Son of the Texas conservative Ron Paul, Rand Paul attributes his success as a candidate thus far to the support of the tea party. He is a staunch advocate of balancing the federal budget and reining in federal spending. Rand Paul has received just over $200,000 from DeMint's PAC. Polls show Paul slightly ahead of his competition.
Jim DeMint, South Carolina senator40 comments on this story
DeMint's Senate Conservatives Fund has transferred more than $1 million in earmarked contributions to Republican candidates during this election cycle. More than $280,000 has been funneled into Mike Lee's campaign. Though only in his first term, DeMint has made a name for himself in the Senate by denouncing both Democratic and Republican leaders for not being conservative enough. He came out in support of Lee immediately after Bennett was defeated in the convention.