With all the hullabaloo surrounding Sharron Angle and Christine O’Donnell and Joe Miller during the midterms, it was easy to lose track of some equally conservative, but less flamboyant, candidates. And it seems safe to say that no Tea Partier had more success while garnering less national attention than Mike Lee. While running for Senate, the 39-year-old Utah Republican proposed dismantling the Department of Education and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. He wants to repeal both the federal income tax and the provision in the Fourteenth Amendment that makes children born in the United States automatic citizens. Yet he cruised to victory with a near-30 point margin in a Senate race that was largely overlooked by the national media.
In the future, Lee is likely to attract a little more attention. In fact, he just might be the platonic ideal for the new Constitution-obsessed, Tea Party-infused GOP: a lawyer who knows how to muster constitutional arguments to justify extreme ideas—and do it with a surprisingly genial, rational disposition. If, going forward, the Tea Party movement wants a national leader who doesn’t scream crackpot, Mike Lee is likely to be the guy.
Among his strengths, Lee has inside knowledge of the contents of Harry Reid’s garage circa 1982. In the early ’80s, when the Reids and the Lees moved to Washington—Harry Reid to serve as the Representative from Nevada, and Rex Lee, Mike’s father, to serve as Solicitor General in the Reagan administration—the two families, though far apart politically, became friends through the Mormon Church. Harry’s son, Josh, recounts that his father, a practical jokester, once locked preteen Mike Lee in the garage until he cried uncle.
Lee spent most of his childhood hopscotching between Utah—where his father was the founding dean of Brigham Young University Law School—and McLean, Virginia. He attended BYU for college and then law school, only leaving Utah to go on a two-year mission in Texas in 1990. After graduating from law school in 1997, he clerked for several justices, including then-Appellate Court justice Samuel Alito, and returned to Utah to serve as an Assistant U.S. Attorney in Salt Lake City. In 2005, he moved into politics as General Counsel for Governor Jon Huntsman, before clerking again for Alito at the Supreme Court. He then spent two years in private practice back in Utah.
In mid-2009, as Tea Party protests escalated, Utah’s Senator Bob Bennett, who’d voted for the bank bailouts and had shown some willingness to work with Democrats on a health care bill, fell into the right’s crosshairs. Lee began speaking in front of small crowds at schools and libraries in towns like Provo and Alpine. Brandishing a pocket Constitution and suggesting the elimination of several federal agencies, Lee might have come across as just another crackpot but for one key difference: He knew his case law.
Lee made few concessions to his audiences of non-scholars. He put forward complex—and radical—legal arguments, convinced that people would catch on. “In a few initial speeches, I ran the basic history of Wickard v. Filburn by them … and people got it. They understood it,” Lee said earlier this year. They not only caught on, they got excited. Lee understood constitutional law; and little, given the Constitution-minded mood on the right, meant more than that.
Momentum built behind him, but Republican Party elders maintained their allegiance to Bennett. It was hard-right South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint and his Senate Conservatives Fund that effectively anointed Lee. “DeMint let us know what was going on,” recalls Russ Walker, who was national political director of FreedomWorks at the time. Walker and others at FreedomWorks subjected Lee to a candidate stress test—interviewing him and watching how he handled himself in front of town halls in Utah. Lee passed with flying colors.
DeMint’s enthusiasm resulted in around $200,000 in independent expenditures from the Senate Conservatives Fund over the course of Lee’s campaign. FreedomWorks, meanwhile, provided the ground game, organizing supporters to go door-to-door and recruiting volunteers from Texas and California to make phone calls. On the eve of the primary, an awed and victorious Lee turned to Brendan Steinhauser, the director of federal and state campaigns at FreedomWorks, and said, “I looked around and I saw all the signs and all I could think was God bless FreedomWorks and God bless America.” Having cruised through the general election, Lee now seems likely to become a loyal foot soldier in DeMint’s small but growing faction in the Senate. “Round here,” Utah Representative Jason Chaffetz told me, “people are already calling him Senator Junior DeMint.”
But, more than anything else, it is Lee’s legal savvy that has conservatives excited. Leonard Leo, executive vice president of the Federalist Society, predicts, “He’ll be one of the most fervent and articulate defenders of limited constitutional government in the Senate.” And Lee’s fluency on legal matters is undeniably appealing. Listening to a speech he delivered to the Federalist Society in November, in which he spoke on a range of constitutional issues to an adoring roomful of conservative lawyers, even I found myself swayed by his rhetoric, nodding as he ticked off the names of cases. He was personable and funny, poking fun at the president without erupting into the seething fury that comes to mind when most liberals think of the Tea Party movement. Only when he reached his conclusion did I step back and realize that he had just posited the unconstitutionality of the Democrats’ new health care bill, and a good number of federal agencies to boot, through a crafty and convincing discussion of the Commerce Clause. It sounded—at least in the moment—reasonable enough to me.
Of course, Lee can’t always mask his extremism in eloquence. But even his more dramatic proposals have failed to attract the type of ire directed at candidates whose far-right opinions were ultimately part of their downfall. In October, when Lee mentioned that congressional Republicans should pass a bill slashing non-defense, non-discretionary federal spending by 40 percent, his camp was quick to walk back the statements, seemingly realizing the unfeasibility of such a proposal. “It was just a conversation point,” argues his spokesman, Boyd Matheson. But was he going to be more cautious in the future? “No, not really, because Mike’s going to be straight up,” replied Matheson. “Was he sorry he threw it out? No, because it created great dialogue. Some people even started doing the math on it.”
Lee, it seems clear, has a disarming ability to suggest the extreme in palatable terms and to push the argument to places that might have seemed inconceivable a few years ago. And, since he occupies one of the Senate’s safest seats at the tender age of 39, he’ll likely have the opportunity to do this for a very long time. Harry Reid might just find himself wishing that he could still lock Mike Lee in a garage.
Jesse Zwick is a writer in Washington, D.C.