Mike Lee hosts McConnell fundraiser in SLC, but not endorsing him
Politics • Utah senator makes it clear he won’t endorse Senate GOP leader in a tough election.
Published: August 7, 2013 01:40PM
Updated: August 7, 2013 11:06PM
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Tribune file photo Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.

Washington • Sens. Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee are throwing a fundraiser for Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell Wednesday evening at Salt Lake City’s exclusive Alta Club.

But Lee wants to make it clear he hasn’t endorsed McConnell and has no intentions of doing sobefore the Republican primary.

Lee’s spokesman says Utah’s junior senator will remain neutral in primary fights involving incumbent Republicans, a position he adopted when Hatch was fending off a challenge from his right last year.

That said, Lee agreed to co-host the fundraiser when McConnell asked him to a few months ago.

“Out of respect for the leader of our party, he said yes and he welcome’s Mitch McConnell to Utah,” said Brian Phillips, Lee’s communications director.

Asked if co-hosting a fundraiser, at least implies support, Phillips said: “No, it doesn’t.”

Lee, who is on vacation with his family, won’t be attending the event. Hatch, however, will be there with McConnell and is effusive in his praise for the GOP leader for the past seven years.

“I couldn’t be prouder than to stand with Mitch McConnell, one of the smartest, savviest Senate Republican leaders I’ve ever had the privilege of serving with,” said Hatch. “He’s always been and will continue to be a great friend of Utah. The bottom line is America needs Mitch McConnell in the Senate.”

Kentucky voters may not be as sure. McConnell finds himself locked in a tight re-election battle with Alison Lundergan Grimes, a surging Democrat, and Matt Bevin, a tea party Republican.

Two recent polls, including one paid for by the Grimes campaign, showed McConnell behind, and as a result, the campaign handicappers at Cook Political Report moved the race from leaning Republican to “toss up” in their highly watched ratings. That makes McConnell, by their estimation, the most endangered Republican running for the Senate in 2014.

Most Senate Republicans are backing his efforts and, like Hatch, are sending contributions from their Political Action Committees. But a small group of tea party affiliated senators have declined to get involved. That includes Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Ron Johnson of Wisc., and Lee. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., has endorsed McConnell, his home state colleague.

Lee has said he doesn’t want to endorse Republican incumbents because he felt it would be hypocritical. He became a senator by taking on Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, in 2010. Bennett, one of McConnell’s close friendsand advisers, received significant help from his fellow Senate Republicans. And Lee refused to assist Hatch as he won a seventh and what he says will be his final term in office last November.

Lee has railed against Republican senators who have rejected his call to block funding for the Affordable Care Act by any means necessary, including a government shutdown. So far, only 12 of his colleagues have joined him and McConnell has said he is still considering how to respond.

In an interview with NBC News last week, Lee said he would “love to have” McConnell’s support in his bid to strip funding for Obamacare, but when the reporter asked if Lee was backing McConnell’s re-election effort he said: “You’ve gone off topic. Thank you, though.”

Bevin, a businessman from Louisville, took a hard shot at McConnell during the state’s annual Fancy Farm picnic, for not supporting Lee’s Obamacare position, saying: “Be a man.”

mcanham@sltrib.com

Twitter: @mattcanham