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Sen. Lee already raising money for 2016 race

Published: Wednesday, May 29 2013 7:22 p.m. MDT

U.S. Senator Mike Lee

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — Even though he won't be up for re-election for three more years, Sen. Mike Lee sent out a fundraising email Wednesday seeking help in his fight to "free the American people from the shackles of big government."

The email, which begins, "Dear Patriot," and closes with, "For Freedom," was sent by the Utah Republican the same day as another tea party leader in Congress, Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., announced she's retiring when her fifth term ends next year.

"It's totally coincidental and unrelated," Lee's communications director, Brian Phillips, said. Phillips said he doubted that Lee, who was spending time in southern Utah with his family, had even heard Bachmann's unexpected announcement.

Phillips said the letter was the first sent by the senator since last year's election and was put together by a newly hired fundraising company that he declined to name. He said similar solicitations are expected to be sent out monthly.

Lee, a member of the Senate's tea party caucus, was elected in 2010 after GOP Sen. Bob Bennett became the first casualty of the tea party at that year's state GOP convention.

While Lee also raises money for like-minded candidates, his campaign committee, Friends of Mike Lee, reported in federal disclosures collecting more than $32,000 in the first quarter of 2013.

His email asks for contributions of between $20 and $100 or "whatever you can afford" right away, warning that "the liberals in this out-of-control government have declared all-out war on the American people."

The language in Lee's email was a little strong for Utah tea party organizer and former gubernatorial candidate David Kirkham.

"I would have toned it down. That is a little surprising to me," Kirkham said, describing the tea party as "done with the yelling. We're done with the rhetoric. We want solutions."

University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank called the fundraising email "quite striking" and suggested it might be similar to others being sent out by tea party candidates.

"This sounds an awful lot like boiler-plate language," Burbank said, noting the email did not reference Utah. He said if there is a connection to Bachmann's announcement, it's to help tea party groups "demonstrate their relevance."

Burbank said it is early in the campaign cycle for Lee to be raising money for his own campaign. Typically, he said, that effort doesn't begin until about two years before the election.

Another political science professor, David Damore of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said Lee may be looking to collect cash from some of Bachmann's supporters now that she won't be running again.

Bachmann, who ran for the GOP nomination for president in 2012, has been a top fundraiser for the tea party. She said in her announcement she plans to "continue to do everything I can to advance our conservative constitutional principles."

Damore said Lee "is learning that the real power in Washington comes from having a lot of money, so he's playing that insider game while trying to look like an outsider. … With Bachmann out, there's a little bit of a vacuum he may be trying to fill."

Phillips said the timing and tone of Lee's email were "pretty par for the course." He said Lee will make a formal announcement of his re-election bid sometime in the future.

"I don't want to characterize it as a launch," Phillips said of the email. "This is just a typical fundraising plea."

Email: lisa@deseretnews.com

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