Sen. Mike Lee’s biggest political sin in the eyes of his new Republican challenger is he doesn’t compromise enough. He votes no too often. He’s rarely in the negotiations on the biggest issues of the day.
For Becky Edwards, a former Utah House member, the job of a U.S. senator should regularly include collaboration, not just within the same political party, but with those across the aisle.
Lee, she said, hasn’t done that.
“And the people of Utah really start to miss out,” she told The Salt Lake Tribune a week after launching her bid to unseat Lee in 2022. She talked through Zoom after visiting the LGBTQ pride display at Salt Lake City Hall and while she corralled three grandchildren.
Edwards is running as a moderate against one of the most conservative senators in the nation. And the differences are stark.
Lee co-chaired former President Donald Trump’s 2020 campaign in Utah. Edwards urged people not to vote for GOP incumbent and cast her own ballot for Joe Biden, the Democrat.
She said Trump was rightfully impeached for his role in inciting the Jan. 6 siege at the Capitol, while Lee voted no. And she would have voted in favor of the commission to study that attack. Senate Republicans, including Lee, successfully blocked debate on that commission. Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, was among the small handful who supported it.
While Edwards is highly critical of how Lee has approached his two terms in office, she offered praise for Romney, who has played a centrist role and, like her, didn’t vote for Trump 2020. Romney hasn’t said whom he voted for.
“One thing I admire about Mitt Romney is his commitment to follow his conscience,” she said. “I don’t think he is dictated to by political whims or pressures. And he’s very consistent in his approach. And I respect that.”
Edwards said 2020 isn’t the first time she veered away from a Republican nominee. Asked if she’d voted for other Democrats for president, she said, ”In my last 38 years of voting? Yes. Have I voted for Republicans in the past? Yes. Have I voted for more Republicans than Democrats? Yes.”
She declined to give more specifics.
She backed Medicaid expansion
Edwards did offer more specifics about why she believes Republicans should reject Lee and give her the 2022 Senate nomination. She criticized Lee for opposing the bipartisan coronavirus relief package signed into law by Trump. Like Lee, she opposed the package Democrats unilaterally passed under Biden.
“He continues,” she said, “to be someone who’s not at the table in support and, in fact, continues to work against Medicaid expansion and the benefits that really impact families.”
Medicaid expansion, part of then-President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, was initially rejected by Utah’s Republican leaders and was put into place only after a referendum vote. She also liked parts of the ACA, also called “Obamacare,” including that it allowed young people to stay on their parent’s insurance longer and didn’t block people with preexisting conditions from getting coverage.
“I know where the politicians stood,” Edwards said. “But I’m also highly aware of where the people of Utah stood.”
Lee’s campaign has not responded to a request to comment for this story.
There are two paths to the primary ballot, and Edwards plans to take both of them. She’ll go to the state Republican convention and try to win over delegates. She’ll also collect signatures, and, if she gets enough, she’ll secure her place in the primary. The winner of the Republican nomination is highly likely to win the general election in this conservative state.
Edwards is the second Republican to announce her candidacy and is the most prominent, but others are considering joining the contest, including Ally Isom, who once served as deputy chief of staff to then-Gov. Gary Herbert. Brendan Wright from Utah County is also seeking the Republican nomination.
University of Utah political scientist Matthew Burbank said it will be “virtually impossible” for Edwards to win a spot on the primary ballot at the convention, which attracts more conservative Republicans.
“Her only real hope is to get signatures and then appeal to a broader group of voters,” he said. “That is not a completely crazy path, but also it is not the one that is the most likely winning path.”
Burbank sees no realistic avenue to challenge Lee from the right, so it means his most likely Republican opponents will be moderates. With that in mind, he said, Edwards makes sense.
“She has some credibility with this group,” he said, “given her past political performance.”
Positives and negatives of early campaigning
Edwards spent 10 years in the Utah House, where she was known for meeting with voters and seeking compromises. She was a moderate within the Republican caucus and in her interview with The Tribune highlighted her role in passing a resolution recognizing climate change as an example of her ability to negotiate with a wide range of lawmakers.
Edwards announced her candidacy more than a year before the June 28, 2022, primary, and that has its pluses and minuses. She wanted to start early so she could build momentum during a tour of the state that she plans to kick off next Saturday in her hometown of Provo. But it also means that Lee and his supporters can focus their attention on her.
The Club for Growth, a conservative group in Washington, has promised to spend heavily to reelect Lee. It has already sent multiple mailers to the homes of Republican voters insinuating Edwards had supported raising taxes. The first one arrived even before she officially announced her candidacy.
“I understand they’re very, very interested in keeping Mike Lee in office,” Edwards said. “But I think the voters of Utah can see through that. It will backfire.”
There are issues where Edwards said she agreed with Lee. She complimented the criminal justice bill passed during Trump’s administration, which Lee helped negotiate. Like the senator, she said she opposed earmarks, calling these appropriations made at the request of one lawmaker “dangerous.”
But, generally, she said Lee was part of the “divisiveness and dysfunctionality” seen in the nation and within the Republican Party. Edwards said Lee has a “strident approach to governing.” On issues like the ongoing debate over an infrastructure package, she wishes he was offering constructive suggestions to make the bill better with the goal of getting something passed. Romney is part of a bipartisan group crafting such a proposal. Lee is not.
That’s an example, she said, of the collaboration she wants to be a part of in the Senate.
“That’s what Utah’s all about,” Edwards said. “And that’s what I’m all about.”