Some national news outlets are spinning Mike Lee’s hard fought 51-49 victory over Tim Bridgewater in the Utah Republican Senate primary as a victory for the Tea Party movement.
But the story is more complicated than that.
Both Lee and Bridgewater had endorsements from state and national Tea Party-affiliated groups. Both men ran on virtually identical political platforms.
Lee, a former clerk to Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, stressed his deep knowledge of and fidelity to the US Constitution, while Bridgewater tended to emphasize his integrity and capability as a self-made businessman.
In the end, the race seemed to come down to who could be tarred as the more “establishment” candidate as well as who could play more effectively to the deeply Mormon Utah GOP.
Lee supporters tried to paint Bridgewater as a professional lobbyist who made his fortune by procuring government contracts to fund private business ventures.
They also made use of Bridgewater’s endorsements by outgoing incumbent Senator Bob Bennett and the big-city Salt Lake Tribune.
And they effectively capitalized on Lee’s background as a constitutional scholar, appealing to deeply-held Mormon reverence for the divine origins and latter-day imperilment of the US Constitution. (Someone even made a YouTube video morphing LDS Church founder Joseph Smith’s face into Mike Lee’s.)
Lee won in areas strongly hooked into the mainstream suburban LDS base such as St. George and Provo, while Bridgewater hoped but failed to win by holding metropolitan Salt Lake City and rural Utah.
So while some may paint this as another Tea Party victory, Lee’s win in fact returns Utah to an old and familiar tradition of preferring Mormon men from historic, multigenerational Mormon families connected to the institutional leadership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Lee, 38, is the son of former US Solicitor General and Brigham Young University President Rex E. Lee and a relative to the storied political Mormon Udall family. He served as general counsel to former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, also LDS. Bridgewater comes from decidedly less connected Mormon roots. (He even worked for John McCain during Mitt Romney’s go in the 2008 presidential primaries.)
This pattern of preference for familiar and institutionally-connected candidates was also born out in races for Utah House in places like North Salt Lake and Coalville, where voters preferred moderate Republican incumbents over hard-line Tea Party-affiliated insurgents, including candidates who campaigned on the Glenn Beck 9/12 Project principles.
The real impact of the Tea Party on the Utah Senate race, of course, took place in May, when multi-term Republican Senator Bob Bennett, a member of the historic and LDS-connected Wells-Bennett-Grant family, placed third in the state primaries, in a clear showing of anti-incumbent sentiment. It was the first time since 1940 that an incumbent failed to get his party’s nomination.
All of this is to say that the Tea Party may not be the national monolith it is sometimes imagined to be. Regional, cultural, and religious factors are always at play.
In Utah, Tea Party politics has its own distinctive flavor. Call it Brigham Tea?