In February 2009, Mike Lee was complaining to a friend, Utah conservative activist Monte Bateman, about the discouraging political scene. Republicans had just spent much of the past eight years ratcheting up government spending and swelling the deficit. Now Barack Obama and the Democrats were getting ready to add fuel to the fire, starting with a massive stimulus package.
Lee proposed what would have seemed to most people a fairly quirky solution: having the doctrine of enumerated powers--the principle that the U.S. Constitution leaves to the states all powers not specifically delegated to the federal government--form the basis of a "new, limited-government political movement." But even Lee was skeptical that the idea could work.
"I told Monte that I doubted any candidate could get elected on such a platform," Lee recalls in his book The Freedom Agenda. Monte disagreed, urging Lee to speak to a few dozen people in his home. It turned out to be the beginning of many such speeches throughout the state. And in Utah a candidate could in fact get elected on a constitutionalist platform, which Lee proved by winning a seat in the U.S. Senate.
Since then, the Tea Party has blossomed into something like the new, limited-government political movement the senator envisioned, while Lee has emerged as one of the movement's biggest success stories-and kingmakers. Shortly after taking office, the 40-year-old freshman co-founded the Senate Tea Party Caucus with Sens. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.). Most other Republicans preferred to collect Tea Party votes without getting too close.
The three Tea Party senators have led the charge for spending cuts, even when it has put them at odds with the Republican leadership. Lee has also joined DeMint in doing something else: encouraging and even endorsing conservative insurgents running in Republican primaries.
By this summer, Lee had already met with at least a half-dozen candidates, made endorsements in two Senate primaries, and launched a pair of leadership political action committees to help what he calls constitutional conservatives get elected. Former Texas Solicitor General Ted Cruz has credited Lee with jump-starting his GOP primary campaign for Senate against establishment favorite Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.
"Mike's early support was critical to the later endorsements we received from The Madison Project, FreedomWorks, the Club for Growth, each of which cumulatively build momentum. Mike was the very first to jump out there. It had a tremendous impact," Cruz told Politico. "You'll see a significant number of Utah donors supporting my campaign early on because he asked them to."
FreedomWorks president Matt Kibbe acknowledged that Lee's support was the "market signal" that put Cruz on their map. Lee has also endorsed Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who is the frontrunner in the primary to succeed retiring Sen. Jon Kyl. Both conservatives, Flake is seen as someone who will resist even Republican spending, in contrast to Kyl, a member of the GOP leadership team.
Lee founded the Senate Constitutional Conservatives Fund, a leadership PAC modeled on the one DeMint used to raise money for conservative primary candidates in 2010. He would like to start an associated "super PAC," which can essentially raise unlimited funds, pushing the envelope of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision. Whether federal legislators can establish super PACs remains an open legal question. What is not open to question is whether Lee would target GOP incumbents. He told The Hill: "It would be hypocritical of me if I were to say never, ever under any circumstances would I try to support someone trying to come here the same way I came here."
The way Lee came to the Senate is precisely what makes him a role model for other Tea Party conservatives. Lee challenged a three-term incumbent, Sen. Robert Bennett, and helped push him out at the Utah Republican state convention. …