Congress has been out of session, and he isn’t up for reelection this year, but Utah senator Mike Lee is a busy man. He was out campaigning last week, traveling from Texas to Oklahoma to Nebraska to stump for Republican candidates engaged in competitive primary battles.
From his office in Washington, D.C., he is operating what a senior aide describes as a “shadow party,” lending support to insurgent Republican candidates and churning out a series of policy proposals intended to put the GOP in a better position to win in 2016 and beyond. The proposals, which together Lee calls a “conservative reform agenda,” are intended to serve as inspiration for the party’s presidential candidates.
On Thursday, Lee, Republican colleague Ted Cruz, and former Alaska governor Sarah Palin were in Tulsa headlining a “Liberty Rally” for Senate candidate T. W. Shannon, the former state-house speaker who is locked in a primary battle with representative James Lankford, a member of the Republican House leadership. From there, they jetted to southwestern Nebraska to raise money for Senate candidate Ben Sasse, a college president battling former state treasurer and Navy pilot Shane Osborn for the party’s nomination in May.
At a time when some of his closest allies and other tea-party favorites, such as Rand Paul and Florida senator Marco Rubio, are focused on building their fundraising networks and campaign operations in advance of potential presidential bids in 2016, Lee’s attention is elsewhere.
“I’m encouraging my fellow Republicans, incumbents and candidates alike, to take note of the fact that we do much better when we promote our agenda,” the senator says. “We can’t always just be the party that’s about being against what we don’t like in Washington. We need also to be the party that’s for things we want to have happen in Washington.”
Lee’s work to articulate a vision of conservative governance is reminiscent of the conservative reform movements that arose in the 1970s, when groups such as the Heritage Foundation, the Moral Majority, and the Republican Study Committee were founded. The policy proposals and ideological fervor that emanated from them helped to sustain the dozen years of Republican governance that followed, first under Ronald Reagan and then under George H. W. Bush. Reagan famously distributed the Heritage Foundation’s Mandate for Leadership, which contained thousands of policy proposals, at the first meeting of his cabinet, and his administration proceeded to implement many of them. “I think there are some important similarities,” Lee says.
Lee has said that Republicans need to be generating ideas during the wilderness years of the Obama presidency that will make people want to vote for them rather than merely to vote against their opponents. While many of his colleagues delivered fire-breathing speeches to the youthful, libertarian-leaning crowd gathered at last month’s Conservative Political Action Conference, Lee was more cautionary. “The kind of leaders” the conservative movement needs “won’t just tell you what they’re against,” he said. “They’ll tell you what they’re for, and why.”
The senator recalls that in 2012, like in 1976 when Gerald Ford lost to Jimmy Carter, “conservatives in many quarters were blamed not only for really losing the White House but also were blamed for losses in various Senate and House races across the country.”
Lee is out campaigning because he wants to see candidates elected who he thinks will help enact his agenda. For him, a candidate’s prospects for victory are secondary to his ideological fervor. “Whether or not that candidate is going to win certainly is not the most important thing,” he says. “It is far more important to me what kind of a perch that candidate would take if elected.”
He subjects the candidates who seek his backing to an extensive vetting process. In interviews, according to an aide, they are asked to evaluate a series of up to 20 specific policy proposals. If the candidates don’t sign on to Lee’s legislative initiatives, they are asked to offer alternatives.
Lee’s backing doesn’t just consist of the traditional fundraising solicitations blasted via e-mail and the boost that comes from having a nationally popular conservative figure show up at a candidate’s side on the stump. He also offers campaigns like Sasse’s and Shannon’s guidance on policy and other matters.
Others benefiting from the Lee boost include North Carolina’s Greg Brannon, a physician who bills himself as the “constitutional conservative Republican candidate” for the state’s Senate nomination; Chad Mathis, another doctor, who is vying for the Republican nomination in the race to fill a retiring Republican’s House seat in Alabama’s sixth congressional district; and Igor Birman, a former aide to Republican representative Tom McClintock who is running in the Republican primary in California’s seventh congressional district.
Lee hasn’t backed every anti-establishment candidate who’s come knocking. He’s stayed out of the race for the U.S. Senate in Louisiana, for example, where retired Air Force colonel Rob Maness is challenging Republican congressman Bill Cassidy from the right.
Backing those he views as the right candidates is just one front in a war that also involves persuading his House and Senate colleagues to support his policy agenda. That agenda is designed to push the party beyond opposing the president’s initiatives and reorient it from the major problems of the 1970s such as high income taxes and urban crime and toward the concerns of today’s middle class. It includes legislative proposals he has laid out in a series of speeches at conservative think tanks. There’s a transportation bill, co-sponsored with Rubio and Georgia representative Tom Graves; legislation to reform the Head Start program, co-sponsored with Arizona representative Matt Salmon; and a forthcoming higher-education bill that Florida representative Ron DeSantis plans to introduce after the Easter recess.
DeSantis says he contacted Lee in hopes of working together on education because he was excited by the senator’s proposals for reform, which would allow states to develop their own systems for accrediting educational institutions and to broaden accreditation to apprenticeships and individual courses.
Lee and his allies are spurred in part by what they consider the limitations of the 2012 Republican platform. At the GOP convention in Tampa, Fla., speakers repeatedly made rhetorical hay of President Obama’s remark at a campaign stop in Pennsylvania that “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that.” “Going around and saying, ‘I built that,’ you’re basically speaking to entrepreneurs who’ve already succeeded and speaking past middle-class families,” DeSantis says.
That’s why Lee says the theme of his reform agenda is “upward mobility,” and he has put a whole different spin on the Bush era’s “compassionate conservatism.”
“We are conservatives not in spite of our compassion, but because we are compassionate.” For now, the Utah senator is the chief proselytizer of this message, but if he has his way, he’ll have more colleagues in the Senate following his lead, and perhaps even the Republican nominee come 2016.
— Eliana Johnson is media editor of National Review Online.