Former President Donald Trump endorsed Sen. Mike Lee a couple of weeks ago, but the Utah Republican’s reelection campaign hasn’t made a peep about it.
Lee hasn’t mentioned the endorsement in the numerous fundraising emails he sends. It hasn’t turned up in a political ad. His campaign team seems to be going out of its way to keep it on the down-low.
The closest Lee comes to bringing the former president into his campaign is in reference to one of his opponents, independent Evan McMullin. “I’m being attacked by my Never Trumper opponent and he is raising millions of dollars in order to STOP our conservative campaign,” the senator wrote in fundraising emails.
Meantime, text messages between Lee and Trump’s chief of staff Mark Meadows released last week showed how deeply involved the senator was in the former president’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election.
How all of that plays out over the coming weeks and months will be interesting as Lee campaigns for a third term in the Senate, including having to face a June primary election involving two credible GOP challengers in community and business leader Ally Isom and former state legislator Becky Edwards.
Lee has not enjoyed a high job approval rating with Utah voters overall, though he remains strong among Republicans.
A new Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll conducted April 5-12 found 44% of voters approve of Lee’s performance, two points higher than in a February survey. The poll found 36% of Utahns disapprove of the job he is doing, while 19% don’t know. Overall, Lee’s approval rating has not changed much since January 2021.
The latest survey was done before CNN revealed a series of text messages from Lee to Meadows from November 2020 and January 2021 discussing ways to hand the presidential election to Trump.
“Please tell me what I should be saying,” Lee wrote to Meadows on Nov. 22, followed by another text that day reading, “There are a few of us in the Senate who want to be helpful (although I sense that number might be dwindling).”
In 2016, Lee called for Trump to drop out of the presidential race and tried everything in his power to prevent him from getting the GOP nomination. After Trump won the election, Lee embraced the new president. He headed Trump’s reelection campaign in Utah. He doggedly pursued avenues to keep him in office after Trump lost to Democrat Joe Biden.
Trump publicly expressed his displeasure at Lee for ultimately concluding Congress only had the power to open and count Electoral College votes. Lee did not vote to challenge states’ electoral votes. About six weeks later, Lee held a high-priced campaign fundraiser at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.
Chris Karpowitz, co-director of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University, said Trump’s endorsement might help and hurt Lee.
For Republicans in the state who embrace the former president, the endorsement will further confirm their preference for Lee, he said.
“Given Lee’s increasing alignment with the MAGA movement over the course of the previous administration, I’m not sure the news of the endorsement will surprise those voters, but it may cement their support of Lee,” Karpowitz said.
“On the other hand, Donald Trump is also a divisive figure. Some Utah Republicans have reservations about him, and for those voters, the endorsement may not help. For a few, the endorsement may be a signal to explore competing candidates.”
Karpowitz said the bigger question is whether the endorsement indicates that Lee agrees with or is willing to accept Trump’s false claims about election fraud in 2020. Those claims seem increasingly important to the former president and his supporters, and have been a source of some disagreement between Trump and Lee in the past, he said.
“One important question is whether Mike Lee’s perspectives of the 2020 election and its aftermath have changed in some way or whether he now embraces Donald Trump’s actions and rhetoric about this issue,” he said. “This is clearly a campaign issue his opponents want to raise, and the endorsement brings those questions front and center.”
The thing to watch is how Lee is doing with Republicans, said Jason Perry, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah. He has stayed “very, very strong” with the segment of the GOP that says they’re going to vote and do show up to vote.
“That’s a very strong base for him,” he said. “That isn’t likely to change, even in light of the stories that have come out recently.”
But, Perry said, it’s worth watching to see if Lee starts losing support among more moderate Republicans.
“That’s where he may see some of his support change. But what I expect to see is that his approvals will stay close to the same, but it is his disapprovals that have the possibility of going up,” he said.
Among Republicans in the new poll, Lee’s approval rating jumps to 58%, though more than a quarter disapprove of his performance. His approval rating soars to 80% with Utahns who identified themselves as “very conservative,” dips to 53% for “somewhat conservative” voters and plummets to 28% among “moderate” voters.
Dan Jones & Associates conducted the poll of 840 registered Utah voters from April 5-12. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.46 percentage points.
Interestingly, Utah Republican Sen. Mitt Romney has the same job approval rating in the new poll as Lee, though a lot more Utahns don’t approve of Romney’s performance than Lee’s.
Half of voters disapprove of Romney’s work in the Senate, compared to Lee’s 36%.
The survey was conducted as the Senate voted to confirm Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court on April 7. Romney voted to confirm Jackson, while Lee voted against. A Deseret News/Hinckley poll released last week found less than half of Utahns wanted the Senate to confirm Jackson.
Romney has not weighed in on Lee’s text messages. He was one of the first Republican senators to acknowledge Biden as the winner of the 2020 election and has called Trump’s fraud claims the “big lie.”
Utahns, for the most part, have an opinion of Romney with only a small percentage of those surveyed saying they don’t know if they approve or disapprove of the job he is doing. Nearly one-fifth of respondents, though, said they don’t know about Lee.
Democrats continue to give Romney a much higher approval rating than Republicans in the state, 71% to 37%. The poll also found 60% of Republicans disapprove of the senator’s job performance.
Correction: In a previous version, the graphic showing the job approval ratings for Sen. Mitt Romney transposed the “disapprove” and “don’t know” numbers. Fifty percent of respondents say they disapprove of the way he is doing his job and 6% don’t know.