We hadn’t previously heard GOP Sen. Mike Lee mentioned as a possible candidate for governor of Utah next year, but Utah Policy’s Bryan Schott writes that some Republicans are wondering if he’s laying the groundwork to succeed retiring Gov. Gary Herbert. The speculation appears to have started on Friday when Lee tried picking a fight on Facebook with Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, who looks likely to run with Herbert’s support, over Senate Bill 54, a 2014 law that revamped Utah’s primary process.
Lee has spent years railing against SB 54, which allows candidates to collect signatures to appear on the primary ballot and avoid a nominating convention, even filing an amicus brief with the Supreme Court supporting the state GOP’s attempt to challenge the law (the case is still pending). Until the law took effect, major party candidates in Utah could only get on the general election ballot by first participating in a party convention. Under the old system, if one contender took the support of at least 60 percent of the convention delegates, they were awarded the party's nomination right then and there without a primary. If not, then the two candidates with the most support would face off in a primary.
This process gave conservative activists, who tend to dominate these conventions, a considerable share of power in party politics, and it paved the way for Lee’s own Senate career. Back in 2010, Lee was one of several Republicans who challenged Sen. Bob Bennett, who had pissed off much of the conservative grassroots with his occasional bipartisan actions, at the convention. Bennett took just third place with 26 percent of the delegates, which ended his re-election campaign on the spot. Lee and another tea party-fueled candidate advanced to the primary, which Lee won.
However, SB 54 now allows candidates to collect enough signatures to just skip the convention and head straight to a primary, where the electorate is still very conservative, but less stridently so. For instance, in last year’s Senate race, none other than Mitt Romney actually lost at the convention, 51-49, among the 3,300 delegates who participated. Two months later, however, he crushed state Rep. Mike Kennedy 71-29 in a primary that featured a hundred times as many voters.
Lee’s not a fan of outcomes like these, and he’s expressed his displeasure in word and deed for years. But while it wasn’t very newsy that Lee ranted that SB 54 was “unconstitutional” five times on his personal Facebook page within a 24 hour period on Friday, he made sure to tag Cox in one post, asking him if he supports the law. Cox, who as lieutenant governor is Utah’s top elections officer, has defended the new primary process, but doesn’t seem to have taken the bait and gotten into a social media fight with Lee over the weekend.
Lee himself doesn’t appear to have said anything about his interest (or lack thereof) in running for governor. Still, while some Republicans think that Lee’s decision to call Cox out was a sign that the senator is preparing to run, others are more skeptical. Utah Policy’s Schott writes that many pundits believe Lee is angling for a Supreme Court appointment or wants to lead a conservative think tank and think he’s not interested in being governor. Dan Hauser, a longtime Lee associate, also said that his social media postings were just his way of once again reiterating his support for Utah’s old activist-dominated electoral system.
Still, some Republicans argue that a Lee campaign for governor run would make sense. One unnamed GOP consultant said that Lee not only despises Cox, but predicted that he’s not going to be very happy in the Senate because Utah’s new junior senator—that would of course be Romney—is going to generate far more attention than Lee. This operative also predicts that Lee would likely win at the state convention easily, which might make him the frontrunner heading into a primary, though Romney’s own example offers a cautionary tale.
Schott also notes that Lee has sponsored a proposed Constitutional amendment that would limit senators to just two terms in the chamber. The effort stands almost no chance of becoming law, but Lee, who has always positioned himself as a conservative true believer, could hurt his standing with his base if he were to run for a third term in 2022, when his seat is next up. If he’s elected governor, however, this potential problem would go away.
Schott adds that this summer’s race to lead the Utah Republican Party could impact Lee’s 2020 plans. Current chair Rob Anderson has pledged to drop the party’s lawsuit against SB 54, which has nearly bankrupted it, but he’s been thwarted by a group of dissenters. If this anti-SB 54 group, which has dubbed themselves the “Gang of 51,” elects one of their allies in Anderson’s place, Schott says that they could try to pass a resolution that would require any non-federal candidate to go through the convention and throw anyone who collects signatures out of the party.
While such resolution would certainly lead to more court challenges, the Gang of 51 hopes that sparking another confrontation would offer them another route to getting SB 54 struck down. Lee would be a formidable contender if he ran under almost any circumstances, but if he was able to compete under the old system where candidates couldn’t avoid the activist-dominated convention, he’d be hard to stop.
While Lee has been mum about running for governor, Cox and a number of other Republicans have shown interest in getting in, and we can add a new name to the list of potential candidates. Utah Policy reported Monday that unnamed Republicans were trying to recruit Salt Lake County Council Chair Aimee Winder Newton to run, and she confirmed later that day that she was considering. Winder Newton did not give a timeline for when she expects to decide.