SALT LAKE CITY — A few hours before he would become the next senator from the state of Utah, Mike Lee stood in a hotel room in downtown Salt Lake, anxiously awaiting what felt like an inevitable coronation.
Over the past few months, the 39-year-old's life had been defined by noise and crowds — he had crisscrossed the state in an RV, he had gone to more barbecues and fundraisers than he could count, and he had nearly shouted himself hoarse in raucous stump speeches before the party faithful, from Blanding to Logan.
But now, standing in an expansive suite on the 17th floor of the Hilton, Lee was enjoying a rare moment of calm. Other than the sound of the traffic below, the room was quiet.
"It's been a long ride," Lee said. "It's surreal that it's finally over."
By late Tuesday night, it was officially over (final unofficial results showed Lee with 61 percent of the vote to Granato's 33 percent) and the party had started in the ballroom downstairs, where Republicans celebrated an historic election in which they took back the U.S. House, made gains in the Senate and largely reshaped the nation's political landscape.
Before 9 p.m., Democrat Sam Granato, a Salt Lake businessman running for political office for the first time, conceded, vowing that he would "hold (Lee's) feet to the fire," to make sure he doesn't neglect Utah once he goes back to Washington.
At 39, Lee is now the youngest elected member of the U.S. Senate and the first new senator Utah has had in 18 years. He made national headlines when he helped defeat three-term incumbent Bob Bennett at the Republican convention in May and was immediately christened one of the new leaders of the tea party movement by the likes of USA Today.
Last month Time magazine named him one of the 40 most influential Americans under the age of 40.
A lifelong Republican and an attorney by trade, Lee says he identifies with the small-government principles of the tea party and wants to form a "tea party caucus" with other newly elected members of Congress, like Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky. Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, whose Senate Conservatives Fund contributed over $200,000 to Lee's campaign, called Lee after he won to congratulate him. DeMint is seen as one of the leaders of the tea party and a rising kingmaker within the U.S. Senate.
The promises Lee made during the campaign endeared him to the state's conservative base, and contributed to his ouster of Bennett, but they may be difficult to carry out. He has suggested, for example, that the federal government trim its budget by 40 percent, that Social Security be phased out, and that Congress impose term limits.
How his election impacts Utah remains to be seen, although some political insiders have expressed concern that his ideological positions could hurt the state's ability to get money for education and transportation projects.
"Senator Bennett was one of the two or three best appropriators in the Senate. He did an outstanding job of bringing federal funds home to Utah," said Kirk Jowers, a political science professor at the University of Utah and the director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics. "Senator Lee has campaigned to end some of those practices."
The bulk of the money the state receives for Title I schools, which are typically in low-income areas and pay for programs like free and reduced lunch, comes from the federal government. The state also has more than a dozen transportation projects that will require federal money not yet appropriated. Several I-15 expansion projects in Weber and Davis counties, for example, have yet to be funded.
"If he sticks to his views, that spending is bad, etc. then it will be difficult for Utahns to attain money from the government through him," says Matthew Burbank, a political science professor at the University of Utah. "Sometimes spending is necessary for worthy projects."
Lee wants to eliminate the Department of Education and doesn't believe the federal government should pay for schools. He says he would vote to continue paying for transportation projects that are already under way, but would look at future projects on a case-by-case basis.
"Every federal program can be said to do good things and I don't doubt that they do some good things," Lee said. "But the question is what's the role of the federal government? I believe a lot of our problems economically have to do with the fact that the federal government is involved in a lot of things it has no business being involved in."
Going to Washington will be a homecoming of sorts for Lee. The son of Rex Lee, a former BYU president, Lee spent most of his youth in Washington, where he regularly watched his father argue cases before the Supreme Court as solicitor general. He lived on the same street as long-time senators like Robert Byrd and attended worship services with Senator Harry Reid, who served as the family's LDS home teacher and was a close friend of his father. At 16, Lee worked as a senate page under Orrin Hatch, a man Lee shares several similarities with. Both were untested candidates when they ran, both are lawyers, and both defeated three-term senators.
The question is whether Lee will follow Hatch's example as a pragmatic senator who has shown a willingness to reach across the aisle (and get re-elected year after year) or whether he will cut his own path with tea party upstarts seeking to change Washington.
"We've seen no indication of Mike backing away from the tea party," Jowers said. "I think he'll stay true to those principles. But at the end of the day he should determine what is best for the state of Utah and how that aligns with his and his constituents' principles. His ultimate success will depend on his ability to balance groups like the tea party's needs and agenda with the needs of his Utah constituents."
On Tuesday, if only for a brief moment, the concerns for the future were put on hold as Lee celebrated with his family, staff and other Republican candidates in downtown Salt Lake.
"I got into this race because I believe that the federal government is too big and too expensive, and it is," Lee said during his acceptance speech. "I intend to govern as your senator with that very same philosophy. I will be committed to fighting every single day I'm there to reduce the size and scope and cost of our federal government."27 comments on this story
He thanked his staff, which initially worked without pay, and promised to stick to his principles, even if it meant not winning re-election.
"This is a nostalgic moment thinking that the campaign is coming to a close, it kind of makes me sad because it's been so much fun," he said. "But just as it's something that's coming to an end, it's also just sort of the end of the beginning. This is the point at which we get to leave behind criticizing the government and talking about what we don't want and where we commence a more rigorous active discussion about what we do want.
"I feel an enormous sense of responsibility. I don't want to let voters down."