Washington • A campaign mailer tying Mike Lee to the LDS Church and Bob Bennett to Washington has largely faded into political lore. But the so-called temple mailer is an ongoing source of frustration for Lee and his closest allies as he begins his service in the U.S. Senate.
The only man publicly linked to the Mormon-infused hit piece, Tim Stewart, recently opened a new lobbying shop with Bennett. Stewart, a former Bennett staffer, is also the subject of a Federal Elections Commission complaint.
"Does it give me, personally, pause? Yes, it does," Lee's new chief of staff, Spencer Stokes, said on the new Bennett-Stewart pairing. Most troubling: that Stewart has yet to identify his co-conspirators.
"It's obvious to everyone that there were multiple people involved in this, and we don't know who those people are," Stokes said. "And so it becomes difficult to know which lobbyists you're getting factual and true information from, versus somebody who in another part of their life was unwilling to give factual, correct information."
Stewart's not speaking, but Greg Hopkins, the spokesman for the new Bennett Consulting Group, defended his colleague's integrity and said it's time to move on.
"I think it is irrelevant who is behind it," he said. "Tim has taken the rap on it. That should be enough."
The shadowy group Utah Defenders of Constitutional Integrity sent the mailer to delegates in the days before the pivotal state convention, making it appear as if Lee was using his Mormon faith in an attack against Bennett, who also is LDS.
The piece featured Lee in front of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints temple in Salt Lake City while Bennett was pictured in front of a black and white U.S. Capitol. It asked: "Which candidate really has Utah values?" and on the reverse side featured some language associated with the Mormon faith.
A poll later showed that delegates were offended by the use of religion in the race and some turned away from Lee, who believes he may have won the nomination outright that day instead of having to go into a primary contest with Tim Bridgewater.
Lee at the time called the piece "thuggish, Chicago-style tactics," and he filed a complaint with the FEC because the group isn't registered and had not disclosed its financing. But Lee now says he wants to stay positive. Stokes promised the office would work for Utah interests, even if represented by Stewart. The lobbyist's Utah-based clients include the city of Logan, the University of Utah and a few water districts.
But the new senator says it still gives him pause not knowing who helped Stewart pay for and create the temple mailer.
"I would really appreciate it if he would say," said Lee.
Stewart initially defended the mail piece as "what may be the most brilliant and possibly the biggest single game-changing political play in Utah politics in the last 20 years," and he said the Bennett and Bridgewater campaigns had nothing to do with it.
In a recent Salt Lake Tribune interview, Bennett stressed that he had no knowledge of the mailer before it arrived at the homes of delegates and said he only learned from media reports that Stewart was involved.
When asked whether the temple mailer will be an issue for his new firm, Bennett said, "Mike Lee has won. So my reaction, well, I won't I'll leave it there. Mike Lee has won."
Besides, Bennett added, "Tim has a widespread practice with a number of very prestigious clients, all of whom have told him, don't worry about it. I'm not worried about it."
Hopkins said the people at the Bennett Consulting Group may have competed against Lee in the campaign, but no longer.
"We are now all Mike Lee supporters, and he is the senator," he said. "We wish him the very best. We have moved past this. I hope he can move past this."
Although the race is over and seven months have passed, the temple mailer may get a special spot in Utah history as one of the more caustic uses of faith in a political campaign. It's not one easily forgotten.
Brigham Young University political scientist Kelly Patterson could not come up with another instance in which a group in Utah used the Mormon faith in such an overt way.
While it is difficult to precisely measure the impact of the mailer on the convention vote, Patterson said his polling made one thing clear.
"It bothered the delegates that religion was used in that way," he said.
The survey asked delegates to rank how offensive they found the advertising, with the top possible score being 100. They gave it a 74.89, meaning "they found it quite offensive," Patterson said. On the flip side, the delegates were pretty uniform in their view that it was an inappropriate use of religious symbols.
Patterson sees two paths for Lee. He can let a potential FEC investigation run its course and let it be or he can use his position to try to uncover the as-yet-unnamed participants.
"It depends on the kind of person Mike Lee, as senator, chooses to be," said Patterson. "It is almost a personality issue."
But Lee sees it as a professional issue, and it could turn into a personal one as well.
Lee has yet to find a place to live in the D.C. area, and if he looks toward northern Virginia, where many senators lay roots, he may find himself in a region in which Stewart and Bennett Consulting Group partner Ken Lee hold high local leadership posts in the LDS Church. Stewart is second counselor in the presidency of the McLean Virginia Stake. Ken Lee is first counselor in the Oakton Virginia Stake presidency.
Stokes said while the concern about the mailer remains high, it will ebb over the coming weeks and months.
"We are going to work to try to resolve this," says the chief of staff. "Senator Lee does not want this to be something that goes on for extended periods of time."
But for the moment, that campaign sore spot appears pretty raw.
Religion in politics
The so-called temple mailer arrived in the mailboxes of Republican delegates in the days before last May's nominating convention. Sent anonymously, it was widely believed to be an attempt to sour delegates on Mike Lee by making it appear he was using his Mormon faith as a club against the incumbent, Sen. Bob Bennett. While the FEC investigates, the mystery of who was behind the tactic still is a sore spot with the new senator and allies.