Attorney Mike Lee’s May victory over 18-year incumbent Sen. Bob Bennett in Utah’s Republican convention gave credence to the tea party movement as a potent political force in the 2010 midterm election and all but assured Lee a red-state seat in the U.S. Senate.
Lee was born in Provo, Utah. His father was Rex Lee, the former dean of Brigham Young University Law School, who moved the family to the Northern-Virginia suburbs outside Washington, D.C., when he became the assistant attorney general under President Ford. Lee was 10 years old at the time. Rex Lee later became the solicitor general under President Reagan. As a teenager, Lee recalls watching his father argue cases before the Supreme Court. “It took me a while before I realized it wasn’t entirely an ordinary experience to get to do that frequently,” he recalled. The late Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., and his wife lived three doors down from the Lees, and he went to school with the children of Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., and the late Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C.
Although he was exposed to the views of both political parties in Washington, he followed his father’s leanings in the Republican Party at a young age. At Brigham Young University, he ran for student-body president on an anti-establishment platform, arguing that the university should end the practice of vetting candidates for student government. “There were a number of people who called me a radical because of that. It’s hardly radical to say students ought to be able to conduct their own elections,” he said. He stayed at BYU after graduation to pursue a law degree, and then had two clerkships, including one with Judge Samuel Alito when he was on the U.S. Court of Appeals. Years later, Lee clerked for Alito again after Alito had been appointed to the Supreme Court.
In 2005, when Lee was an assistant U.S. attorney in Utah, the chief of staff for recently elected Gov. Jon Huntsman called to offer him the job of legal counsel to the governor, which he accepted. A few years later, Lee began to contemplate a run for office himself, in late 2008. The government’s rescue of the financial industry under President Bush and the $787 billion economic stimulus bill passed during the Obama administration convinced him to pursue a seat in Congress. “It feels like a form of taxation without representation to be heaping so much debt onto future generations with very little discussion of how oversight is going to be maintained or how the funds are spent,” he said. “The more I looked into the matter, the more I thought about it, the Republican Party had in so many ways deviated from what it professes.”
Lee decided to challenge Bennett, a conservative also known as a pragmatist willing to work with Democrats. Lee and businessman Tim Bridgewater both ran to the right of Bennett, who came under heavy fire for his 2008 vote for the Wall Street rescue. The two newcomers were able to knock Bennett out at the party’s caucus in the spring. Lee went on to narrowly defeat Bridgewater in the Republican primary, 51-49 percent. Both were backed by tea party activists. The primary win all but assured Lee a victory in the general election over Democratic opponent Sam Granato. Solidly Republican Utah hasn’t had a Democratic senator since the early 1950s.