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Opinion: Sen. Orrin Hatch’s former chief of staff endorses Mike Lee

Sen. Orrin Hatch’s former chief of staff endorses Sen. Mike Lee for U.S. Senate

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Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, speaks as he and Evan McMullin debate at Utah Valley University in Orem on Monday, Oct. 17, 2022

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, speaks as he and Evan McMullin debate at UVU in Orem on Monday, Oct. 17, 2022.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

I worked for Sen. Orrin Hatch for 15 years, as his senior counsel on the Senate Judiciary Committee and then as his final chief of staff. Love him or hate him, you always knew where Hatch stood on the issues. He was a stalwart conservative who fought hard for the values Utah voters care about.

Mike Lee is the same way. You know where he stands. He’s a committed constitutionalist who has worked tirelessly to safeguard our values and roll back federal overreach. He’s been a soldier in the fight against the woke agenda that has consumed so much of our country.

Lee is running for reelection against Evan McMullin. And unlike Lee, McMullin is something of a giant question mark.

When he first appeared on Utah’s political scene in 2016, McMullin offered himself as a protest vote for disaffected Republican voters who didn’t like Donald Trump. He pitched himself as the true conservative in the race.

But it took McMullin less than two years to shift from being a conservative alternative to calling Brett Kavanaugh a “contemptuous partisan” who “misled the Senate.” The 2016 and 2018 McMullins were completely different. Fast forward to 2022, and it’s hard to know what to think.

McMullin’s positions on many key issues remain unclear. He describes himself as pro-life while at the same time criticizing the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Dobbs. He says he believes in federalism but has endorsed Democrat-led legislation that would result in a federal takeover of all elections. These are fundamentally contradictory positions. Is McMullin a conservative? A moderate? A liberal? I confess I’m not really sure.

As a Capitol Hill veteran, I can’t overstate how important it is for elected officials to let voters know where they stand. Voters deserve to understand candidates’ stances on the issues before they agree to send them to Washington for six years. A Senate seat should not be a blank check. Voters should know what they’re getting.

One particularly concerning aspect of McMullin’s current run is his commitment to not caucus with either party. Hatch delivered for Utah because he worked hard from positions of power that were possible through the seniority-based system within the party caucuses. 

Without a caucus, McMullin will have no opportunity to rise in committees. He will have no avenue to legislate effectively or guide the Senate’s agenda. Despite his claims, he would quickly realize how little influence a caucus-less senator can wield in the United States Senate. 

This isn’t speculation. 

There are currently two independents in the United States Senate: Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Angus King, I-Main. Both caucus with the Democrats and are reliable votes for Chuck Schumer. Both voted for President Joe Biden’s massive spending bills that have left Utahns with record-breaking inflation. The last thing we need is a third independent who gives Schumer another vote on key issues.

Without exception, the same pattern has existed over many decades for other senators who declared themselves independents. Jim Jeffords and Joe Lieberman caucused with the Democrats. James Buckley and Bob Smith caucused with the Republicans. Each was an independent but each got committee assignments from one party or the other. Martin B. Gold — a longtime congressional aide and one of the nation’s leading experts on Senate procedure — underscores this point: “Were a senator to refuse to caucus with either party, he would get the last two positions available when Republicans and Democrats filled all their slots. That is how it has worked in the Senate, which is why all those independents caucused with one of the two major parties.”

As a matter of simple reality, McMullin will end up having to caucus with one of the parties. But which one will it be? We don’t know. That should concern every right-leaning Utah voter.

I want a consistent conservative in the Senate who will work to rein in the size of government, defend religious liberty, protect the rights of parents and support judicial nominees who will uphold the Constitution. 

I know that’s who Mike Lee is. I know what he stands for. I know he will represent the values of Utah in the United States Senate.

A native of Provo, Utah, Matt Sandgren is a 15-year veteran of Capitol Hill. He served as a senior counsel on the Senate Judiciary Committee and as Sen. Orrin Hatch’s chief of staff.