Senator Mike Lee (R., Utah) doesn’t endorse against incumbent Republican senators, but he’s got a policy of advising candidates who ask for his input that allowed him to affect one of the highest-profile fights between the Tea Party and the establishment without taking an official stand against Senator Thad Cochran (R., Miss.).
“Chris McDaniel came in several months ago and met with Senator Lee and talked to him about the campaign,” Lee spokesman Brian Phillips told National Review Online, describing the conversation as a routine meeting in which Lee explained that he doesn’t endorse against fellow Republican senators.
“At the same time, Senator Lee offered him the same advice that he gives to all candidates, which is that the electorate is looking for policy specifics, particularly in the Republican party,” Phillips said. “And where we have contested primaries, the difference is going to be candidates who can outline a conservative policy vision for what they want to do whenever they become a senator or a congressman.”
BuzzFeed reported that the tea-party leaders in the Senate were “keeping their distance” from McDaniel due to a scandal involving a tea-party supporter who was arrested on charges of photographing Cochran’s bedridden wife in her nursing home bed, but that’s actually when Lee became most useful to McDaniel. When the Mississippi state senator’s campaign circled back for more information about the policies that Lee has advocated as part of a conservative reform agenda, Lee provided it and advised McDaniel to go positive rather than become mired in an increasingly negative campaign.
“The advice was always consistent that people are looking to vote for someone,” Phillips said. “In this primary, you’re not going to get over 50 percent by just slamming the other guy and getting people to vote against the other guy; that at some point there is going to be a significant number of independents and undecideds who are going to be looking to vote for someone. And that’s true, I think, in any primary. And we had given the advice that we think the agenda is the thing that people will vote for. And so, if you’re looking to move numbers of undecideds and independents, the agenda shows the way, and so that was the advice that we gave, and that’s the advice we would give to anybody.”
Phillips noted that Lee gave information on the conservative reform agenda to every candidate who requested it in the race to replace retiring congressman Spencer Bachus, (R., Ala.), even though he endorsed one candidate in particular in that race.
McDaniel has picked up on the ideas, but Cochran hasn’t asked Lee about the platform or for campaign advice. “Not for advice — he’s asked for money,” according to Phillips. “Senator Lee has not contributed to McDaniel or Senator Cochran.” McDaniel held a press conference in the middle of May touting the “grand-scale reforms” offered by Lee, as the Jackson Clarion-Ledger noted at the time.
Lee has been popular with the conservative base of the Republican party since he provided the Tea Party with their first upset of an incumbent senator in 2010. That credibility increased during the government-shutdown fight as Lee and Senator Ted Cruz (R., Texas) led an effort to defund Obamacare. Rather than use that appeal as a springboard to a presidential campaign, though, Lee has been trying to take a leading role in developing a legislative agenda for Republicans. He regards selling his platform to candidates as a key part of turning that conservative reform agenda into an effective Republican party platform, along with getting incumbent lawmakers and intellectual leaders on board with the ideas.
“It is certainly a huge opportunity for us if we are able to convince candidates to use this message and then go out and win elections using this message,” Phillips said. When NR’s Eliana Johnson wrote about Lee’s “shadow party,” she noted that “the Utah senator is the chief proselytizer of [the conservative reform agenda], 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.”