Freshman Sen. Mike Lee has his share of critics among the Senates traditionally minded GOP veterans for his willingness to offer opinionated advice on policy and political strategy.
Lee and businessman Tim Bridgewater helped prevent Bennett from advancing to the statewide Republican primary ballot by holding him to third place in a vote of Utah GOP convention delegates — many of whom were tea party activists angry at the otherwise conservative sitting Senator for his vote in favor of the 2008 Wall Street bailout. Lee then defeated Bridgewater in the June 2010 statewide GOP primary.
Sen. Orrin Hatch is up for re-election for a seventh term in 2012, and some Republicans on and off Capitol Hill suspect Lee is working quietly to gin up GOP primary opposition to his fellow Utahan.
Even with Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R) opting against challenging Hatch at the convention, Lee has chosen to remain neutral in the primary. And, when President Barack Obama addressed a joint session of Congress on jobs in September, Lee gave his gallery ticket to state Sen. Dan Liljenquist, who Utah Republicans say is mulling whether to challenge Hatch in the primary. Hatch could be vulnerable, given the influence tea party activists have in Utah's convention process.
Lee's office disputes any suggestion that the junior Senator is working against Hatch. And the Senators say they have a good working relationship. But in the Senate, where egos are sensitive and Members' reputations can be shaped by how they discuss an issue as much as by their positions, it's easy to see how Lee giving a coveted ticket to a Liljenquist could be viewed as impolitic.
A Republican lobbyist with relationships on both sides of the aisle conceded that while Lee is likable, he was brash when he first arrived in the Senate in January. The lobbyist said that after nine months in the chamber, Lee is unlikely to "win a popularity contest." But this lobbyist also praised Lee as among the most capable Republicans from the 2010 class and said he is personable and forthright.
"He didn't come here to wait his turn in line. He came here with a mandate from the folks back home," this Republican said. "He is a very effective, conservative-thought leader."
Lee has forged connections with colleagues on the Judiciary Committee, including ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), a Senate veteran who, over the course of his career, has displayed a penchant for bipartisanship. Lee also is close with other Republicans identified with the tea party, including Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.), who described the Utahan as "someone who helps me because he sees [legislation] from a lawyer's point of view."
Lee said he does not view himself as more impatient or vocal than any other freshman, while adding that he understands that his views on tactics and legislation will not always be adopted.
"I respect the fact that not everyone is always going to agree with me, either within the Conference or outside the Conference," Lee said. "The fact that I disagree with a position leadership is taking might more accurately reflect the fact that I'm taking a position that differs from the majority of my Republican colleagues in the Senate."
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