Can Sen. Mike Lee be denied a third term in Congress? And more importantly, who is going to try and knock him off his perch?
Yes, there’s more than a year until the 2022 election. But discussions about politics in America are now routinely framed around the next election cycle.
And possible rivals are starting to line up for a shot at Lee for the Republican nomination, which includes the option of gathering enough signatures to make it on the primary ballot instead of relying on winning over delegates in the GOP state convention.
Two prominent Republican women are currently weighing whether to challenge the two-term incumbent.
Former Utah state Rep. Becky Edwards says she’s “all in” on exploring whether she could mount a credible challenge to Lee.
“I’ve been hearing from a lot of people who are looking for effective leadership that reflects the views of everyday Utahns,” she says, very much sounding like a candidate. “We need a focus on the future of our state, what our economy looks like for our kids and grandkids.”
Edwards and her husband just returned from serving a mission in American Samoa for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Prior to that, she held a seat in the Utah House from 2009-2018. She is also the daughter-in-law of former legendary Brigham Young University football coach LaVell Edwards, whose name adorns the Provo school’s stadium.
Another potential rival for Lee is Ally Isom, a marketing executive who previously served as spokesperson for Gov. Gary Herbert and later for the LDS Church. She also says she’s being encouraged to run for the Senate seat currently held by Lee.
“The nation and the Republican Party are at a pivot point. I think the party I’ve dedicated a large part of my life to is having an identity crisis. It’s forgotten the fundamental conservative principles, and I think there’s a better way that builds and unites,” she says. “I’m interested in helping the conversation move to a higher level.”
Isom may have a big hurdle to overcome if she decides to run — a very public breakup with the Republican Party. In 2016 Isom renounced her membership in the GOP following former President Donald Trump’s election.
“I’m still a Republican at heart and a Republican in principle,” she explains. “I felt like my party left me and I needed to come up for some air.”
Isom, who re-registered as a Republican prior to the 2020 primary election, points out she wasn’t the only one dismayed by her party’s embrace of Trump. During the 2016 campaign, Lee called on Trump to drop out of the race after a video surfaced showing Trump making crude comments about women. He also cast a protest vote for independent candidate Evan McMullin that year, only later pivoting to go all-in on supporting Trump.
Isom says her departure was more like a vacation from the party than an abandonment. “The Republican Party is my home and I want to have a say in what happens with the future of my state,” she says.
It’s notable that both Edwards and Isom are eyeing a race against Lee. Utah is one of 19 states that have never elected a woman to the U.S. Senate. Wyoming exited that list last year with the election of Cynthia Lummis.
The only Republican who has publicly declared his candidacy against Lee so far is Brendan Wright from Utah County. The Lehi resident and area planning manager for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, says he sees a need for better teamwork and civility in the office.
Anyone else out there?
There are other Republicans rumored to be thinking about taking on Lee next year, most notably former gubernatorial candidates Thomas Wright and Greg Hughes, the former Utah House speaker, but neither has made any significant movement toward undertaking a run. There are also persistent rumblings in some GOP circles that Tim Ballard, founder of Operation Underground Rescue, is plotting to enter the race.
There are also some hoping that McMullin, the former independent presidential candidate, will mount a campaign, but that’s probably more wishful thinking than reality at this point.
Hughes vociferously rejects the notion he would challenge Lee.
“I will be supporting Sen. Lee’s reelection next year,” says Hughes in a text message. “People need to keep my name out of their mouth. I’m not a church mouse. When I decide to do something, I say as much.”
Wright, a real estate executive, was noncommittal about whether he’s thinking about running.
“While I enjoy building and running my business, there continues to be a desire to serve. I’d make the decision to run based on the timing being right for me, my family and my business, and, of course, how effective I thought I could be in the position for the people of Utah,” says Wright, a former chairman of the Utah GOP. “I continue to believe that we need new people and new perspectives, instead of career politicians who get too entrenched to find common ground to solve the challenges our country faces.”
Ballard and McMullin did not respond to requests for comment.
One intriguing possibility is former Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, who prior to Sen. Mitt Romney, was the most persistent critic of Trump in the upper chamber of Congress. Flake, who is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has been spending a lot of time in Utah recently. Some Republicans who are not enamored with Lee and dissatisfied with the current pool of challengers have been urging him to jump into the race. It’s unknown whether Flake is open to the possibility. He did not respond to questions from The Tribune.
It’s a sure bet Lee will have a tougher race in 2022 than he encountered in 2016. He was able to avoid drawing a primary challenger that year despite his central role in pushing the unpopular 2013 government shutdown. He then cruised to victory in November with 68% of the vote.
The greatest possibility of someone ripping the GOP nomination away from Lee most likely comes amid a similar dynamic that occurred during last year’s GOP primary race for governor. Spencer Cox prevailed in that four-way contest with just over a third of the primary vote. More primary opponents mean more uncertainty and gives rise to the possibility of a split vote. In that scenario, it’s entirely possible to have a nominee win with less than 50%.
Democrats and those on the left would like you to believe that next year is when they knock off Utah’s senior senator, even though Utah’s minority party has lost 33 straight statewide elections, the last win coming in 1996. So far, Austin Searle, who advocates for universal Medicare and gun control; community activist Allen Glines, who supports campaign finance reform and action to combat climate change; and Mitchell Nicholas are the Democrats who have jumped into the race to challenge Lee.
Evan Barlow is running unaffiliated.
In February, Lincoln Project co-founder and Park City resident Steve Schmidt suggested he could challenge Lee next year. Schmidt has not elaborated on whether he plans to make good on that threat, and efforts by The Tribune to reach him have been unsuccessful. The never Trumper group, which was a social-media star, imploded earlier this year with allegations of serial harassment by one of its founders.
No question, Lee will be tough to beat no matter who or how many step forward to challenge him. A January Deseret News survey found 69% of Utah Republicans approved of his job performance.
The same poll found only 45% of all voters gave him good ratings, but Republicans outnumber Democrats many times over and a large chunk of unaffiliated voters often vote with the GOP.
“There’s a better chance of Sen. Lee winning a beer-chugging contest than losing a U.S. Senate Republican primary in Utah,” jokes political consultant Danny Laub of POOLHOUSE, who has consulted on the campaigns of Sen. Mitt Romney and Rep. John Curtis.
“It is extremely unlikely that Mike Lee will lose in 2022,” adds Mike Madrid, Republican political consultant and co-founder of The Lincoln Project. “In fact even if he endorsed his opponent, at this point he’d still likely win.”
Big money advantage
As an incumbent, Lee enjoys a number of advantages not available to anyone who might challenge him. Fundraising usually means the difference between running a robust or frugal campaign. His latest campaign financial disclosures show more than $500,000 in the bank, which gives him a huge head start. And his fundraising efforts in recent weeks have been relentless with no sign of letting up over the next 19 months.
Both Edwards and Isom have no illusions about what kind of resources they’ll need to marshal in order to run an effective campaign to unseat Lee.
“I don’t know if I can match him dollar for dollar,” says Edwards. “I know the desire is there among everyday Utahns to see a change. I’m not even in the race yet and people are asking where they can donate.”
“I’m just trying to determine if it’s possible to raise enough money to share a message that would be meaningful,” adds Isom.
But it’s not just direct campaign fundraising that presents an obstacle to any would-be competition. There are already several outside organizations poised to come to Lee’s aid with big dollar ad buys should he find himself in a difficult primary race.
Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the campaign arm of Senate Republicans, says Lee will have the group’s full support.
“We will be all in supporting our incumbent senators if they have a primary election,” Scott told The Tribune during a telephone interview. “We will do whatever it takes to help him win his primary and the general election.”
The right-wing Club For Growth group vows unwavering support for Lee next year.
“Club for Growth Action is prepared to spend whatever it takes to make sure Senator Lee is renominated and re-elected,” says President David McIntosh in an email. “Last cycle Club for Growth and its PACs raised over $100 million. Typically, in a contested Senate race Action will spend $5 million to $10 million. More if necessary.”