Sen. Mike Lee is trying to remake the Republican Party in his own image, and he’s starting in his home state.

But while Lee has long used an uncompromising approach to politics in Washington, D.C., it’s unclear how that style will translate to Utah politics.

The Beehive State’s senior senator sent shockwaves through Utah political circles when, just days before the April 27 state convention, he launched a campaign to replace 2nd District incumbent Rep. Celeste Maloy with the previously unheard of Colby Jenkins.

Maloy, a Republican, won a special election in 2023 to replace Rep. Chris Stewart, her former boss, in the 2nd District. Lee’s decision came as a surprise to her. Aside from endorsing the already GOP-nominated Stewart in 2012, Lee has never wielded his national electoral influence at home in congressional primaries. Until now.

Former gubernatorial candidate Carson Jorgensen, who served as GOP chair from 2021 to 2023, said Lee’s decision was risky.

“It is a double-edged sword,” Jorgensen said. “You can be a kingmaker, but you can also weaken yourself at the same time.”

Lee cites the country’s fiscal trajectory as the reason he decided to engage. Congress needs candidates with the backbone to put words into action, Lee said, even if that risks becoming a pariah among party top brass.

“We don’t really have time anymore for the normal politics,” Lee told the Deseret News. “Action is needed now and that’s why I’ve become so vocal on this. We need people who are willing to play aggressively, we need people who are willing to say ‘No’ to their own party’s leadership.”

And don’t “expect this one to be the last” endorsement he makes in a Utah federal race, Lee said, this is just the beginning.

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While some Republicans laud Lee’s brand of conservatism, other Utah politicos, including Maloy, say there is no evidence it leads to policy wins in Congress.

“Washington is a relationship-driven town and hardliners don’t build relationships and that’s one of the reasons they can’t get things done,” she said.

Lee’s aggressive (some would call it all or nothing) approach was on display last week when he and several other Republican senators signed a letter saying they would block work in the Senate over the guilty verdict against former President Donald Trump.

“Strongly worded statements are not enough,” Lee wrote on social media when he posted the letter. “Those who turned our judicial system into a political cudgel must be held accountable. We are no longer cooperating with any Democrat legislative priorities or nominations, and we invite all concerned Senators to join our stand.”

Lee’s endorsement of Jenkins, and his moves in the Senate, come during a time of nationwide debate over whether ideological loyalty outweighs incremental gains and whether responsible governing through bipartisanship is possible, or desirable, in a fractured age.

As with any endorsement, Lee has decided to place a bet on the 2024 Republican primary election. But the political outcome will impact more than just Maloy’s fate — it could shape his own as well.

Lee’s print on Utah politics

In 2011, Lee was a rising star in the tea party movement, after first helping to topple long-time incumbent Sen. Bob Bennett at the Utah Republican convention, then winning a contested primary election after receiving former South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint’s stamp of approval.

“When he won in 2010, he was King Kong,” one well-connected Utah GOP operative said.

At the time, the Republican Party was in the throes of a realignment powered by a crop of newly elected senators supported by DeMint. Probably more than any other of the “DeMint disciples” — which included Rand Paul, Marco Rubio and Ron Johnson — Lee was held up as a harbinger of how different tactics could upend the status quo.

Lee’s early and successful backing of Ted Cruz and Jeff Flake confirmed his influence across the country — an influence that has reverberated across Utah Republican politics since his election, not in primaries, but in the party’s platform and personnel, according to those who know him, and the state GOP, best.

“He’s not just another conservative,” Utah attorney general candidate Derek Brown said. “I think he has become, in some ways, the standard-bearer of the conservative movement generally.”

Brown — the only other statewide or congressional candidate to have received Lee’s endorsement so far this election cycle — left the Utah Legislature to work as Lee’s deputy chief of staff from 2013 to 2016 before serving as chairman of the Utah Republican Party from 2019 to 2021. Brown joined his two successors in touting Lee’s involvement in the state party.

“Sen. Lee is certainly one of the most influential and impactful elected officials within the Republican Party here in Utah,” current GOP chairman Rob Axson said, “both in regard to motivating support, as well as eliciting interest on topics and getting folks engaged on various perspectives.”

Axson said Lee doesn’t have special access to party decisions beyond that of other GOP officials. But he has played an outsized role in attracting fundraising to the party, according to Brown, and in training up a new generation of Utah political leaders — Axson worked as Lee’s state director from 2016 till he assumed leadership of the state GOP; state Reps. Candice Pierucci, R-Herriman; Ryan Wilcox, R-Ogden; and Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, also passed through Lee’s office at the start of their political careers.

But maybe Lee’s most notable effect on the state GOP has been ideological.

“Mike Lee for a long time, and still is, the gold standard of what conservatives believe and what they want to see from government,” said Jorgensen, another former party chair.

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But Lee’s loyalty to former President Donald Trump and his preference for blocking legislation he deems harmful, versus accepting incremental wins, has often left him at odds with Utah’s more pragmatic Republican electorate, according to Chris Karpowitz, a senior scholar at the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University.

“In one sense, he represents one part of the current battle within the Republican Party for the future of that party,” Karpowitz said.

Lee’s legacy of using Senate procedure to protest what he sees as unconstitutional provisions, like causing a partial government shutdown in 2013 and supporting Alabama Republican Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s efforts to block military nominations over abortion coverage, has been copycatted in Congress’ lower chamber by House Freedom Caucus members over the budget, Karpowitz said.

Lee’s endorsement of Jenkins in the 2nd District appears to be an effort to grow that faction within the GOP, according to the GOP political operative, who requested anonymity.

“He wants more people that look like him,” the operative said. “He wants to have more people that vote the same way he does, which is voting ‘No’ on things.”

Why did Lee endorse Colby Jenkins?

Lee’s surprise endorsement came just two days before the GOP nominating convention. It followed votes by Maloy on legislation Lee opposed, and an in depth interview between Lee and Jenkins on how he would vote if elected.

Jenkins beat Maloy 57%-43% at the convention after Lee asked district delegates to back the Army veteran who he promised would be a “warrior” in Congress, but both crossed the threshold necessary to appear on the Utah Republican primary ballot on June 25.

According to a Jenkins campaign spokesperson, “Lee’s endorsement has certainly opened a lot of doors.” On May 8, Jenkins received the endorsement of the House Freedom Fund, a PAC devoted to supporting House Freedom Caucus members. A week later, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., endorsed Jenkins in a video filmed with Lee.

In the days since, Lee has sent out social media posts and fundraising emails on behalf of Jenkins and stumped for him at campaign events.

Lee defended his decision to go all-in for Jenkins, saying he thinks compromise had led to bad outcomes.

The senator called federal debt “arguably the biggest single threat” to economic prosperity and national security, with debts projected to top $50 trillion, and interest payments eating up $2.5 trillion of the annual budget, by 2030.

“We can’t afford to sit idly by and go along with what Washington, D.C., wants to spend year after year after year,” Lee told the Deseret News.

Lee pushed back against the “characterization” of his endorsement being “against” Maloy. He said he liked her, and said he was concerned about harming relationships in Utah, but he felt “compelled” to weigh in.

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But if Lee is looking for a conservative to represent Utah in Congress, then replacing Maloy, who ran on reducing government overreach, seems like an effort wasted, Karpowitz said.

“His disagreements with Celeste Maloy don’t seem to be because Celeste Maloy is not conservative,” Karpowitz said. “It’s more a matter of the style of political conflict that some members of the Republican Party seem to want to promote.”

In a recent interview with the Deseret News, Maloy said she was on board with the tea party movement and its aims when it first surfaced.

“I was excited in 2010 to see the changes,” she said. “We elected a whole slate of people who were tea partiers, and they were going to be hardliners and not take it anymore.”

But, “If you look at our debt and our taxes from 2010 until now,” Maloy said she realized, “they didn’t get us where they said they were going to get us.”

It turns out, Maloy said, it takes more than a persistent “no” vote to build a more sustainable spending future for the country.

“You need people who are willing to learn the system, understand the system and go change it in ways that actually work, instead of making big hardline promises that they can’t deliver on,” she said.

Will Lee’s endorsement backfire?

Lee’s rapport with the party’s activist base was evident at the convention, where delegates turned on a candidate they had nominated less than a year before, said Jason Perry, the director of the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics.

Even if Jenkins were to lose in the primary, the outcome of the 2nd Congressional District race will not call Lee’s influence among this group into question, Perry said. “I don’t think Sen. Mike Lee staked his reputation on this endorsement.”

But influence within the state’s convention system means less in today’s GOP, according to Taylor Morgan, director of Count My Vote, the organization largely responsible for the inclusion of a signature-gathering option in primary elections.

“The delegates are very different than everyday Republican voters,” Morgan said. “They have very different priorities, very different values and concerns — Mike Lee has a lot more influence and sway over those party delegates than he does, I think, the party voters.”

Utah House Speaker Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, resisted the idea that only the most partisan Republicans are interested in what Lee has to say. He points to Lee’s 2022 primary win as evidence. Up against two serious contenders, the senator still netted more than 62% of the vote.

Most Utah Republicans recognize there’s a time and a place for a representative who is willing to dig in their heels for as long as it takes, according to Schultz.

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But one GOP political adviser who has worked with Lee expressed concern with his latest tactical shift — saying by leaning into Trump-era Republicanism, and the Tea Party pugilism that preceded it, Lee could turn off the “average Utah Republican.”

“I think the challenge is, if you pick up Trump’s style you’re going to burn some bridges around you,” the adviser said. “And I think his change in tone — that has come in part from things like taking on Celeste Maloy, and in part from things like having a much more aggressive, bare knuckle Twitter account — he’s much more vocal about who he doesn’t like in Washington, and I think it’s not necessarily going to make him a more productive representative for Utah.”

Lee’s intervention in the 2nd District primary has already been bumpier than hoped for, according to Jorgensen. A win at convention, “where Mike Lee is king,” would have been the show of force Lee expected — and the best shot for a Jenkins victory, Jorgensen said.

While he calls Lee “one of the best senators we’ve ever had” and a “dear friend,” Jorgensen said Lee’s anti-incumbent turn in Utah has potential risks — just like Lee’s first foray into politics in the tea party era that brought him to the Senate.

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