Editor’s note • This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s voter guide for the 2022 midterm elections. You can find all the stories in both English and Spanish here.
Para leer este artículo en español, haz clic aquí.
Of all the war stories Texas Sen. Ted Cruz can tell about Sen. Mike Lee, one of his favorites is their battle to delay a bill to fund the federal government to defund the Affordable Care Act.
Before he took to the Senate floor to speak for 21 consecutive hours, Cruz — a staunch Southern Baptist — huddled with Lee, a committed Latter-day Saint, in the former’s small hideaway office in the United States Capitol to read the Bible, pray together and invoke God’s blessing on their effort to protect Americans from Obamacare.
Lee’s contribution to the effort, Cruz recalled, was to regale listeners with cowboy poetry, random trivia and jokes.
“At three or four in the morning, people say all sorts of things,” Cruz said. “And Mike gets a little punch drunk when he’s sleep-deprived. He doesn’t drink. So that’s about as loopy as he gets.”
Lee’s reputation for being sober hasn’t made him any more predictable to his critics or his friends. The only constants in his service are his alliances with some of the Senate’s biggest big-name conservative stars — Cruz, Sens. Rand Paul and Marco Rubio — and his dogged belief in conservative ideals.
Especially puzzling to critics is Lee’s staunch support for former President Donald Trump after equally fierce opposition to Trump the candidate. They argue his uber-conservative politics impede the legislative process and take issue with his oddball opposition to popular bills.
Conversely, Lee’s supporters say they appreciate his willingness to espouse unpopular views, his allegiance to conservative principles and his unwavering support for the Constitution.
Lee rode the Tea Party wave into office in 2010, vowing to amend the Constitution to impose a flat tax and limit officeholders in the House and Senate to 12 years in office. Back then, Lee was the political insurgent, ousting popular three-term Republican incumbent Sen. Bob Bennett.
Now, Lee faces an insurgency of his own. Former Republican Evan McMullin, whom Lee supported for president in 2016 as a protest vote against Trump, is running as an independent to oust the incumbent senator.
Fierce critic to staunch defender
Nothing has infuriated Lee’s critics more than his evolution from vocal critic to ally of the former president.
When a 2005 video of Trump surfaced during the 2016 campaign showing the candidate boasting about groping and having sex with women, Lee called on Trump to drop out of the race, and he refused to endorse him.
Lee’s failure to embrace Trump was also due to the candidate’s shoddy treatment of his friends — Sens. Cruz, Paul and Rubio — in the GOP primaries. He said he was angry with the presumptive nominee for making disparaging remarks about Cruz’s wife, Heidi, and alleging Cruz’s father was connected with the Kennedy assassination. And he was concerned the candidate would govern as a shadow progressive.
Before Trump was sworn in as president, Lee said he had a tense meeting with him at Trump Tower. He recalls listening to the president harangue him for 15 minutes for his lack of support and trying without success to change the subject. When that didn’t work, Lee said he leaned forward to address the president.
“I said, ‘Look, let’s be clear. You’ve been elected president of the United States, and I have just been reelected to the Senate. So you and I are going to be interacting a fair amount as a result of that. Let me just be clear about a couple of things:
“‘So far as you fight to restore constitutionally limited government, especially federalism and separation of powers, you will have no greater ally than me in the Senate. Insofar as you work to undermine either of those … I will be a thorn in your side and a pain in your neck.”
That exchange, Lee said, changed an adversarial relationship into a conversation about how they could work together. From that point on, Trump regularly consulted with Lee about possible Supreme Court nominees and on other matters.
Lee said he supported the president when he could but opposed Trump when he believed he was guilty of constitutional overreach. For example, Lee was one of 11 Republican senators in 2019 who voted to block the president from diverting $3.6 billion from the military and using it to build the wall on the nation’s southern border.
While Lee fell in with Trump, he experienced some fallout with independents, more moderate Republicans and some members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
During Trump’s reelection bid last fall, for instance, Lee’s comparison of the nation’s commander in chief to Book of Mormon military commander Captain Moroni at a campaign rally in Arizona sparked outrage and eye-rolls.
In April, the biggest firestorm of Lee’s political career erupted when text messages between Lee and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, which were obtained by the House select committee probing the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, leaked to the media.
In a Jan. 3 text to Meadows, Lee said an attempt to reject electoral college votes would fail unless states sent alternate slates of electors. The following day, when Trump blasted Lee because he thought the senator was not supporting his bid to overturn the election, Lee texted Meadows about his efforts to help the former president.
“I’ve been spending 14 hours a day for the last week trying to unravel this for him,” Lee wrote.
“We need something from state legislatures to make this legitimate and to have any hope of winning,” Lee texted.
Jim Bennett, who ran his father’s unsuccessful reelection campaign against Lee in 2010, calls the senator’s actions indefensible. He noted Lee wrapped himself up in the Constitution in his bid to unseat his father.
“That makes it all the more galling as I watch him defend the most constitutionally illiterate president we’ve ever had and his unconstitutional attempt to stay in power,” Bennett said. “It’s clear that he spent a great deal of time and energy trying to subvert the Constitution he claims to revere, and I think voters ought to hold him accountable for that.”
Lee counters that it is important to look at the context of his text messages. He said his texts with Meadows came when he attended a Trump rally in support of his then-colleagues, Georgia Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler.
What prompted the texts, he explained, was the president singled him out for criticism at the rally because he heard correctly that the senator was reaching out to his GOP colleagues and telling them they had no authority under the Constitution to choose a president except in rare circumstances or to challenge the adequacy of a presidential election conducted by a state or undo the certified electoral votes of any state.
Former Utah Congressman Jason Chaffetz said Lee did what every senator should have done — call the states, work with all parties and get the president’s perspective before correctly voting to certify the election.
“He should have been praised for his due diligence rather than unjustly criticized,” he said. “Those who want to take a pot shot at him for sending texts and listening to all sides … That’s exactly what he should have been doing.”
Despite Trump’s legal troubles, Lee said he will support him if he is the GOP’s presidential nominee in 2024.
“I didn’t do that in 2016. That was a mistake,” the senator added. “The fact is, I don’t know for sure whether he’s going to run in 2024. What I do know is, that whoever runs, [that candidate] is going to need the support of Trump voters.”
Raised on conservatism and the Constitution
Lee is a self-billed constitutional conservative, and Federalism and Separation of Powers were part of the lingua franca of the Lee household.
Lee was born in Arizona in 1971 to Janet and Rex E. Lee, who would serve as founding dean of the J. Reuben Clark Law School at Brigham Young University.
Mike was the middle child in a family of seven children, and he was extremely close to Rex.
“The three characteristics I saw in him, even as a young child, were his consideration of others, his strong sense of right and wrong and his curiosity,” said Janet Lee Chamberlain, who eventually remarried after Rex’s death from cancer in 1996.
Rex shared his love of the law and discussed legal cases with his young children, especially Mike and his brother Tom, who later served as an associate justice of the Utah State Supreme Court.
Over the years, the Lees alternated between living in Provo and the Washington, D.C., area. In 1975, Rex was the Assistant Attorney General over the Civil Division in the United States Department of Justice. A year later, Lee’s father returned to Provo to resume his deanship at the law school. And from 1981-1985, the family was back in the nation’s capital, where Rex served as the U.S. Solicitor General under President Ronald Reagan.
Janet would occasionally pull her children out of school so they could watch their father argue cases before the Supreme Court. Mike studied where each justice sat and would predict which justice would ask the first question or fall asleep first.
One of Lee’s closest friends when the family lived in McLean, Va., was Josh Reid, son of then-Congressman Harry Reid, the Nevada Democrat who was later elected to the Senate and became Senate Majority Leader. Like the Lees, the Reids were members of the LDS Church. They attended the same ward, and Reid was the Lees’ home teacher.
The two have remained lifelong friends. Reid was in Washington in 2011 to witness Lee being sworn in for his first term in the U.S. Senate. Sen. Reid was also there to take the oath of office for his last term as Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, both friends of the Lee family, looked on.
“It was interesting to see [Mike] up there with my dad,” Reid said. " It was a good moment for me, but it was bittersweet for dad because he was good friends with Senator Bennett.”
Moving on and moving up
Upon graduating from BYU with a Juris Doctor in 1997, Lee clerked for Judge Dee Benson of the U.S. District Court for the District of Utah; for Samuel Alito, then-judge of the U.S. Circuit Board of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, and entered private practice with the Washington, D.C., firm Sidley and Austin, specializing in appellate law and Supreme Court litigation.
Former Utah state legislator Derek Brown, who also worked at Sidley Austin and later served as the senator’s state director, said when Lee weighed in on legal issues, more senior associates and even partners in the firm listened.
“He had a unique ability to analyze issues and break them apart and get to the heart of the matter, and he was also really good at tactics and legal strategy,” Brown said. “He was a lawyer’s lawyer.”
Lee soon returned to Salt Lake City to serve as an assistant U.S. attorney, preparing briefs and arguing cases before the 10th Circuit of Appeals. He then served as general counsel to Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.
Chaffetz, Huntsman’s chief of staff at the time, said the governor leaned heavily on Lee. So did Chaffetz when he broke the heel bone in his right foot and couldn’t drive.
Lee picked up his hobbled colleague and drove him to the office and home each day for several months. But instead of listening to talk radio or music on their commutes, Lee would listen to audiotapes of his father arguing cases before the Supreme Court.
Lee’s legal acumen and passion were on display when he clerked for Alito a second time when the judge was appointed to the Supreme Court in 2006. Alito told The Tribune that Lee wrote bench memos analyzing each case, helped Alito prepare for the conference at which justices discuss and vote on cases, and even assisted the justice in writing opinions.
“He impressed me as a brilliant young attorney who had a deep appreciation of our Constitution and an exceptional commitment to the rule of law,” wrote Alito, who clerked for Lee’s dad when Rex was U.S. Solicitor General.
Friends with other big names in the Senate
Some of Lee’s closest friends and ideological allies in the Senate are Cruz, Paul and Rubio. Cruz and Lee often have dinner together. The Lees and the Cruzes have even vacationed together at Lake Powell.
“Our families are close,” Cruz said. “Mike is by far my closest friend in the Senate, and I love the man like a brother.”
Lee endorsed Cruz for president at the GOP convention in 2016. Cruz said if he had prevailed, he would have appointed his friend to the Supreme Court at the nearest opportunity.
“I urged Donald Trump with all three of the vacancies that occurred to nominate Mike,” Cruz said. “Unfortunately, the president did not select him.”
Sen. Paul’s interactions with Lee are centered on their shared belief in constitutionally limited government. He said Lee analyzes bills from a constitutional perspective, and the Republican caucus has come to depend on him to point out “inconsistencies” and unconstitutional provisions in pending legislation.
“We both believe the government should only obtain and use the powers that were given to it in the Constitution,” Paul said, “that those powers not delegated explicitly to the federal government are left to the states and people. And we not only say it, we believe it, and we vote that way.”
Several of Lee’s votes on bills have rankled some and baffled others. For example, Lee was one of only two senators to oppose a victims’ compensation bill providing support for 9/11 responders.
The senator’s lone objection to the creation of a national historic site in Colorado to commemorate Japanese Americans who were forcibly interned during World War II also drew fire from critics.
Lee said he opposed the 9/11 bill because it was poorly written and had some loose ends that needed to be tied up before it was ready for prime time. As for the historic site, he wanted answers about how to pay for it. By delaying the passage of the bill, he added, the land was donated for the site at no cost to the federal government.
Matthew Burbank, a political-science professor at the University of Utah, said Lee deserves credit for pointing out problems with proposed bills but is not particularly adept at passing legislation.
“He’s not a great legislator. He’s not a legislative dealmaker. He’s not somebody who is going to have his name on lots of legislation,” Burbank said. “But part of that … is due to where the Republican Party is right now. There really is no reward among Republicans, for the most part, in doing that heavy legislative work.”
His opponent McMullin is more blunt about Lee’s legislative prowess.
“In 12 years, @SenMikeLee has only successfully passed 6 bills. Half of them named [after] government buildings,” he tweeted last week. “I guess he was too busy spending 14 hours a day recruiting fake electors for Trump to get anything done for Utahns.”
When asked for comment, Lee’s spokesperson, Lee Lonsberry, said the senator had many, less visible successes, including “negotiat(ing) amendments to or extract concessions” on 29 bills in the congressional session that ended in January 2021. He also points to Lee’s successes in blocking policy.
In his discussions with members of Congress, University of Utah political science professor James Curry said he’s never heard anyone express dislike for Lee. That said, he believes the senator’s position on the right end of the political spectrum can be problematic.
“The reality is that you can’t get anything done in Washington without compromise,” Curry said. “It is still a series of institutions that require building really broad support. That’s a lot harder to do if you are presenting yourself as a hard-liner, which Mike Lee has done for the last 12 years.”
Lee says that perception is inaccurate, pointing to the passage of bipartisan legislation he has championed, like the First Step Act, a bill aimed at reforming federal prisons, refocusing federal resources on serious offenders and reducing minimum sentences for drug-related offenses.
“It was the biggest criminal justice reform package — not just in a decade, but an entire generation,” Lee said. “And it was bipartisan every step of the way.”
More recently, in July, the senator was instrumental in the passage of the Formula Act, a bipartisan bill that addressed the critical domestic shortage of baby formula. He also has teamed up with Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar to use antitrust laws to rein in big tech companies.
As for the stiff challenge he faces from McMullin, Lee expresses confidence. One of his primary focuses if he is elected to a third term will be to continue his fight to restore the constitutional principles of federalism and the separation of powers, he said.
“It’s the perfect approach to a diverse, pluralistic society and to a union of 50 diverse states,” Lee said. “You will allow more people to have access to more of the government they want and less of a government they don’t want.”
Specifically, Lee wants to rein in Congress and prevent members from delegating so much lawmaking power to unelected and unaccountable bureaucrats. He and Sharon also look forward to seeing the next generation of Lee lawyers.
Their son John is finishing up his last year at BYU law school. His brother James is clerking for a federal judge in Kentucky. Alas, the twins’ younger sister, Eliza, is studying human relations at Utah Valley University. But her parents still harbor hopes that she may desire to practice law.
“She just hasn’t acknowledged it yet,” her father joked.