Lee advanced to Congress by ousting Sen. Bob Bennett in a GOP primary convention, in one of the clearest examples of the tea party uprising that characterized the 2010 election cycle. The Utahn has brought that approach with him to the Senate. And in deciding whether to endorse, he focuses largely on whether a candidate’s views match his. As someone who interprets the Constitution strictly, Lee believes the government should do only what the document specifically enumerates and that the current federal government has expanded beyond its intended scope.
How much public attention he can bring to constitutional conservatism factors into Lee’s endorsements. In some cases, pushing his vision of limited government through endorsements is just as important to Lee as whether the candidate he backs can actually win in a general election. That would explain Lee’s endorsement of Bongino in Maryland, where Republicans are not expected to be competitive in November.
“It’s as much about the message in who we endorse as the person; it’s about elevating the message,” the CCF representative said.
In contrast, DeMint is looking for candidates who share a broader range of conservative credentials, including opposing abortion rights and supporting his call for Congressional term limits, according to the criteria as described at the SCF website.
Lee said he has been meeting with one or two candidates per week during the past few months.
“I ask candidates to describe for me their vision for the federal government. What’s the proper role of the federal government? How do you view Congress’ authority? And I listen to their answer, and that’s probably the single most important question that I ask,” Lee said.
Given that Lee is not yet in a position to invest significant resources on a candidate, their electoral viability might be less of concern to him than it might be for DeMint, whose PAC raised $9.3 million last cycle for the candidates the South Carolinian endorsed. The SCF has raised $4.3 million this cycle and has endorsed four candidates: Cruz, Stenberg, Ohio’s Josh Mandel and Wisconsin’s Mark Neumann.
DeMint’s PAC bundles campaign cash for candidates, allowing donors to go to its website and direct money to the candidates of their choice. SCF also runs television ads and offers other strategic assistance. A Republican strategist who has monitored DeMint’s PAC and the Senator’s effort to help elect conservatives to the Senate said Lee is in a good position to “replicate” his colleague’s success.
This GOP strategist said DeMint has succeeded in part by looking outside of Washington and K Street to raise money for SCF — and because he endorsed candidates who had solid grass-roots support.
“Lee’s approach is very similar, and it can definitely work for him,” this source said. “He might not be as well-known as DeMint right now, but nobody knew who DeMint was three years ago. If Mike Lee continues to fight on behalf of conservatives, his profile will grow. If he combines that with good endorsements, people will trust him.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.