Washington • Sen. Mike Lee raised $249,000 in the past three months, a major haul for the first-term senator who is not up for re-election until 2016. But he also spent nearly all of it, leaving $51,600 in available funds.
Lee, R-Utah, aggressively raised money off of his attempt to cut funding for Obamacare, a campaign that helped lead to the 16-day government shutdown that ended early Thursday.
In the past quarter, he sent at least 13 fundraising emails tied to his “defund Obamacare” effort, in which he tried to persuade Republicans to block any budget bill that includes money for the health law.
That campaign is by far Lee’s most-sustained attempt at fundraising in his nearly three years in the Senate. He sent one email Sept. 30, which was both the end of the fundraising period and the day before the government shutdown began.
“You see, your gift today won’t just be a gesture of support for one senator from Utah. It will be a loud and clear call for the end of Obamacare,” he wrote. “And more importantly, it will strike fear into the hearts of the Washington establishment on both sides of the aisle.”
Through these appeals and other fundraising efforts, the senator collected $118,000 in small donations of $200 or less. The rest came in larger donations from individuals or from political action committees.
He spent the bulk of the money he raised — $224,000 — and when debts are subtracted from his available funds, he has $51,600 left.
Lee’s campaign declined to provide his full fundraising report, which it filed by mail. The report is not yet available publicly through the Federal Election Commission.
Before this report, Lee recorded the least amount of available money of any senator up for re-election in 2016. That’s unlikely to change when this latest report becomes available publicly.
He had $14,600 in available funds in July and has previously had multiple quarters in which his campaign was in the red. The next lowest was Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., who had $99,800. The median fundraising haul for the 33 senators up in 2016 was about $850,000. At least 13 had campaign caches of more than $1 million.
Lee’s spokesman, Brian Phillips, said the senator declined to seriously raise money in 2011 and 2012 because Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, was running for re-election at that time. Lee is still “prospecting,” Phillips added, essentially building his fundraising operation, a costly venture that includes building contact lists.
He isn’t the only senator who saw his fundraising spike during the intense budget showdown.
Lee’s close ally, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, raised $1.2 million in the past three months, a huge leap from his previous report.
While Lee started the defund Obamacare effort, Cruz received much more publicity, in part because of his 21-hour speech on the Senate floor. According to a Dallas Morning News review of Cruz’s report, he raised $223,000 on the week of that marathon address.
Cruz is considered a 2016 presidential hopeful, while Lee has taken no steps toward seeking the presidency.
Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report said politicians perennially raise money off of the major political debates of the day. The fight over Obamacare and the budget proved, she added, “especially potent as Ted Cruz proved and like Mike Lee proved, frankly.”
The effort may have helped Lee raise money, but it does not appear to have helped his poll numbers.
A survey by Brigham Young University’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy shows that Lee’s approval rating dropped from 50 percent in June to 40 percent in the first week of October, when the government shutdown began.
Among Republicans, his approval rating fell from 71 percent to 57 percent. When Lee comes up for re-election, he may well have a challenger from within his own party, with the most talked about candidates being former state GOP Party Chairman Thomas Wright, former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist and Mitt Romney’s son, Josh Romney.