The face of change: Can tea party's Mike Lee make a difference?

Published: Monday, Oct. 18 2010 12:00 a.m. MDT

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.

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