A shockwave went through Utah Republicans in the days before the state convention when Sen. Mike Lee endorsed the primary opponent of Rep. Celeste Maloy, which came as a surprise not just to political watchers, but to Maloy herself.

She alluded to the rift during her convention speech, when she said, “Representing you is a sacred privilege. And I don’t take it for granted. That’s why I refuse to be a rubber stamp. I will not bow down to anyone. I’m not going to bow down to the party, to leadership, to the media, or to a senator.”

In an interview with the Deseret News on Thursday, Maloy said Lee didn’t tell her he was going to endorse Colby Jenkins, who is running in the 2nd Congressional District Republican primary. Nor has he called her since.

Lee also spoke to the Deseret News, explaining why he decided to endorse political newcomer Jenkins.

Candidates in Utah have two paths to the ballot — they can get at least 40% support at the state convention, or they can collect thousands of signatures of registered voters. Most incumbents — including Lee — do both.

But after winning at convention last year, Maloy didn’t gather signatures to get on the primary ballot, unlike Rep. Blake Moore, who represents Utah’s 1st Congressional District and also had a primary challenger. That meant she was dependent on delegates to the state convention to get back on the primary ballot. Jenkins beat Maloy 57% to 43%, but she reached the threshold necessary to appear on the primary ballot.

Maloy said she believes Lee doesn’t like that she supported legislation in the House that he opposed, and said they differ in the tactics Republicans should use when approaching how to govern. She said she supports incremental wins when Republicans can’t achieve wholesale reform.

“This isn’t a conservative coming after a moderate. I’m very conservative,” she told the Deseret News. “I’m just willing to take small wins and let them add up. And this isn’t symbolic of a rift within the party. This is just a very unnecessary rift within the Utah delegation.”

Lee said he started speaking with Jenkins after hearing “unflattering” accusations about Jenkins, and decided they weren’t true. Lee said that led to conversations about policy and he found they had common beliefs and goals. Neither he nor Jenkins would say what the accusations were or who made them.

Maloy says she tries to avoid ‘political drama of Republican-on-Republican backstabbing’

Maloy said Lee didn’t tell her he was going to endorse Jenkins before the news became public.

“I tried to avoid all of the political drama of Republican-on-Republican backstabbing, but I didn’t start this. Sen. Lee endorsed my opponent — and he didn’t just endorse him, he showed up at convention on Saturday and worked all day at his booth and then got on stage with him and gave most of his speech,” said Maloy.

“It’s not something he talked to me about. I found out about it when it was in the news, just like everybody else,” she continued. “But my mom always told me you can’t control anyone else. You can only control you. So I’m controlling me. I’m gonna keep running my campaign and representing the people in the 2nd District.”

Maloy said she believes she and Lee “agree on most things in principle” and she spoke to him regularly.

“What we disagree on are tactics. Sen. Lee would rather go for big major changes, and if we don’t get the big major changes, then he’d rather let the bill die and start over,” she said. “I’m willing to take steps in the right direction.”

“If you want to use a sports analogy, I would also love to get a grand slam every once in a while, but I’m willing to take singles and doubles because that’s how you win a game,” she continued.

Maloy said they both want “conservative wins” and to “protect the freedom of Americans.”

“I never thought that tactics would be a reason to try to take out one of my colleagues who’s in my same delegation. I would never have done it. But apparently, Sen. Lee decided that tactics are a good enough reason to try to replace someone,” she said.

Maloy said she spoke to Lee several times on the phone before voting on legislation extending Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which has been used to spy on Americans when they’re speaking with people in another country. Lee opposed final passage of the bill, but Maloy said it included “important reforms that protect American’s freedoms,” so she voted in favor of it.

She said Lee also took issue with her vote on government spending bills that he didn’t think went far enough to cut spending, but she says they contained “conservative wins,” and were negotiated by Speaker Mike Johnson against a Democratic White House and Senate.

Reaction among Republicans in Washington to Lee’s actions

Maloy said most of the Republicans who she’s spoken with about Lee’s endorsement seem “mystified.”

“This is just not the kind of behavior people expect from someone who in the past has been really principled about the decisions he makes. Most people seem irritated and confused by it,” she said. “The last thing we need right now in Republican politics, is more drama between Republicans, especially when we all want the same end result.”

Maloy said Republicans have “debated vigorously” about the methods necessary to get to a “smaller more accountable government,” but traditionally have disagreed without it becoming a “wedge issue to split up our party.”

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, campaigns with Colby Jenkins, running for the 2nd Congressional District, in the expo hall during the Utah Republican Party state nominating convention at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, April 27, 2024. | Megan Nielsen, Deseret News

Lee explains his decision to endorse Jenkins

Lee said he didn’t look closely at the race between Jenkins and Maloy until he heard some “unflattering” things about Jenkins that had him considering whether he should speak out against him.

“And so I investigated and discovered those accusations that I found so troubling were not true,” Lee told the Deseret News. “As part of that investigation, I reached out to him and talked through some of these things and discovered not only that the accusations that I found so troubling were not true, but that he and I agree on a whole lot of things.”

Lee said he doesn’t talk about Maloy in his statements, but rather is speaking in favor of Jenkins, who he said is “a fine candidate.”

“He’s a hero, a West Point graduate, a Green Beret. He served with distinction,” said Lee. “He stands for liberty and he’s committed to being very aggressive on not voting for large spending bills he hasn’t seen and fighting against some of the other government overreach that we’ve seen. So I decided to support him.”

“But,” Lee continued, “had it not been for these accusations — pretty serious accusations about things that he said — really had it not been for the fact that those were gaining momentum, causing me to wonder if I should come out against him, I would probably never have even spoken to him.”

Lee said he didn’t know Jenkins prior to his candidacy, but had “apparently” spoken to him on the phone when he called to tell Jenkins’ daughter she had been admitted to West Point.

Jenkins didn’t respond to a question about what accusations were made against him. But he did send a statement about Lee’s endorsement.

“Earning Senator Lee’s support was not easy. He did a very thorough vetting and asked me many tough questions related to my background, my positions on key issues, and about my core beliefs and principles,” he said. “I was humbled when, after many conversations, he called to tell me that he was endorsing my campaign. I’m honored that Senator Lee, along with the majority of state delegates, picked me over the incumbent.”

When Lee was asked whether he’d reached out to Maloy, given the magnitude of standing against a fellow Republican incumbent, Lee pointed to his own election to the Senate, which started with a challenge against former Republican Sen. Bob Bennett.

“I was a person who ran against a Republican incumbent, and some things were said about me at the time. I was glad that people defended me and that’s what caused me to investigate, because I was ready to jump in against him, too. I learned that they were not true,” he said.

Rep. Owens reception in Republican conference after his endorsement of Maloy

At the convention, Maloy was introduced by Rep. Burgess Owens, who represents Utah’s 4th Congressional District.

“I trust Celeste (Maloy), to her credit,” Owens said at the convention. “Give her back to D.C. so she can finish this work as my teammate.”

Maloy said Owens’ decision to back her was cheered by their fellow House Republicans.

“Burgess Owens stood up with me at convention and said, send my teammate back so she can help me win on these things. And that was very popular within our conference,” she said.

Maloy said she thinks what’s happening in the Utah caucus is a “microcosm” of what’s happening among Republicans in general, related to “media” and other constituencies encouraging infighting in the party.

“I think watching Sen. Lee, who is the senior senator in our delegation, come after a five-month incumbent, the newest member of the House, for what is a minor difference in position on tactics, feels symbolic of what we’re all fighting right now,” she said. “So, Burgess Owens got a hero’s welcome on the floor, and a lot of positive reinforcement for being the kind of guy who will stand with a colleague. Burgess Owens and I don’t always vote the same way. But we respect each other. We understand each other. And we know we’re working towards the good of Utahns at all times.”

Maloy says she hasn’t spoken to Lee since endorsement

When asked whether she’d spoken to Lee since his endorsement of Jenkins, Maloy said she had not. He did not call her before the announcement and has not called her since, she said.

She has not called him either. “Seems like the ball’s probably in his court right now,” she said. “He has not reached out.”

When asked whether she thinks she’ll be able to work with Lee moving forward, Maloy said she is “still willing to work with him.”

“I didn’t start this. I’ve always been willing to work with him. I’ve called him and talked to him about these major bills that he and I decided to have differences on. He knew where I was on all of them. I’ve always looked to him as a mentor and a friend and I’ve been very open with him about where I am on all of these issues.”

Maloy’s new campaign manager is Allyson Bell, who was Lee’s chief of staff

Maloy said she believes her reelection campaign is going well. She said she has endorsements from Robert O’Brien, a Utahn who was national security adviser under former President Donald Trump, Rep. Jim Jordan, a conservative Ohio Republican, and David Bernhardt, who served as Trump’s Secretary of the Interior.

She said she recently hired Allyson Bell, who was Lee’s chief of staff for almost eight years — from early 2016 until last November — as her campaign manager.

“I think that speaks to the fact that Mike and I want the same end results, but it’s kind of baffling to all of us that he’s willing to start a war over tactics and minor disagreements.”