At first blush, Mike Lee and Tim Bridgewater have a lot in common. Both are graduates of Brigham Young University, both are self-described tea-party conservatives, and both beat three-term senator Bob Bennett at last month’s Republican convention. During their final debate, they even agreed that soccer is boring. So, it’s unsurprising that when it comes to policy, they both admit in interviews with National Review Online that there is little difference between them. Their similarities, however, have only led to tension between the pair.
Without a Washington incumbent to run against, Lee and Bridgewater have had to run hard against each other. It hasn’t been pretty. Tea-party groups have splintered, as have national conservative leaders. With both candidates looking to repeal Obamacare, improve border security, reform entitlements, and cut taxes, the room for differentiation has been slim. In the run-up to today’s GOP Senate primary, character — not policy — has become the field of battle, with both candidates’ backgrounds, past statements, and endorsements at the center of the drama.
“Generally, we agree on most issues,” says Bridgewater, a 49-year-old business consultant. “This race has been about the ability to fight back.” Lee, 38, an attorney, agrees: “There are striking policy similarities, but if you peel back the onion and look at our backgrounds, you’ll see stark differences.”
In many ways, the race has been an intra-tea-party scrum, with both candidates scrambling to be associated with the fledging movement. Lee likes to tout his support from the Tea Party Express, Rep. Ron Paul (R., Texas), and Dick Armey’s FreedomWorks. Bridgewater points to the support of David Kirkham, a prominent Utah tea-party organizer, as proof of his grassroots backing. Interestingly, the Club for Growth, which played a large role in ousting Bennett, has stayed out of the primary fight.
“The tea party has been split,” Bridgewater argues. “The organizers are siding with both campaigns. We’re equally sharing support and endorsements. The thing about the tea party is that they had a larger role in the anti-Bennett movement at the convention. Now many of those Republicans are helping us with our ground game.” He makes sure to add that he “can’t say that I’m the tea-party candidate.”
Bennett is Bridgewater’s most notable supporter, and although his campaign’s theme is anti-Washington, Bridgewater tells us that he welcomes Bennett’s backing. “It just adds to our momentum,” he reasons. He calls Bennett “respectful,” even though he helped to topple the incumbent. That kind of approach to politics, Bridgewater says, eludes Lee. “Senator Bennett was comfortable lending his support because he knows that I attacked him on the issues. That says a lot about his positive approach.” Lee, he asserts, “has run a negative campaign, one that’s been false and misleading.”
“A number of people told me that they were undecided until Bennett endorsed Bridgewater, and said that was good enough reason to vote for Mike Lee,” Lee says in response. “They know I’m the better tea-party candidate.”
Lee also brushes off Bridgewater’s criticisms about running a “negative” campaign. “It’s necessary to show the contrast between one candidate and another. I make no apologies for the manner in which I’ve done this. I give my opponent credit where it’s due, and I’ve never accused him of doing anything immoral or unethical. Let that be clear. I’m just pointing out how we have different backgrounds that reflect different viewpoints about the proper role of government.”
Bridgewater, a businessman, has been more than willing to tangle. He claims that Lee, a former general counsel to former governor Jon Huntsman, won’t appeal to the “common man and woman” in Utah. “We don’t need to send another lawyer to Washington,” he says. “A business perspective is missing in Washington.”
But Lee, a former clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, says a constitutional lawyer is just what voters want this year. “They want a reliable conservative who understands, instinctively, the difference between federal and state power. I’ve spent a lifetime studying the Constitution and advocating on behalf of limited government.” Lee’s father, the late Rex Lee, served as U.S. solicitor general under Ronald Reagan, and was president of BYU.
While Bridgewater shines a light on Lee’s law career, Lee is reflecting the glare back at him, running an ad accusing Bridgewater of securing a $1 million loan from the federal government for an energy study at his company. In the year of tea, the pork accusations have caused a rift. Lee has also criticized Bridgewater, a former failed U.S. House candidate, for his previous position on No Child Left Behind; he’s flip-flopped from support to opposition.
“I’ve known Tim Bridgewater for more than a decade,” Bennett retorted in an e-mail to Bridgewater supporters. “I am impressed by the fact that he, like me, brings a businessman approach to political issues. Most of my colleagues in the Senate are lawyers, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but when a legal approach dominates, practical solutions often get pushed aside.”
Another bone of contention in the race is the involvement of Sen. Jim DeMint (R., S.C.), the chair of the Senate Conservatives Fund. During the state party convention, DeMint gave his nod to Lee. Since then, Bridgewater has remained frustrated with the senator for weighing in. Just recently, Bridgewater supporters set up a website called “The Jim DeMint Takeover,” which asks, “Is Jim DeMint trying to play kingmaker in so many Republican primaries because he is gunning for Senate leadership?”
Bridgewater doesn’t hide that he has little love for the Palmetto State senator. “It will take me a long time before I feel comfortable working with him,” he says. “If I’m elected, there are going to be some problems that will need to be reconciled. I don’t know what Jim DeMint’s underlying agenda is, and I’m not happy with his involvement in this race. It’s fine for him to endorse, but for him to run attack ads against me is uncalled for. [EDITOR’S NOTE: A clarification on this point: DeMint has not run attack ads against Bridgewater, but he has appeared in Lee’s campaign materials, made cutting remarks about Bridgewater, and contributed to Lee’s campaign.] . . . An outsider like Jim DeMint ought to focus on his own state.” If he makes it to the upper chamber, Bridgewater says he’ll want to work closely with Sen. Tom Coburn (R., Okla.) and Sen. Jon Kyl (R., Ariz.), among others.
That anger about DeMint is “not merited,” Lee says. “There is no one more tea-party than Sen. Jim DeMint. He is a living embodiment of the movement in the U.S. Senate. My opponent is just upset that he is on my side and not his side. Believe me, you wouldn’t hear him complaining if [DeMint] was helping him.”
In the campaign’s final days, the polls have been close. A KSL-TV/Deseret News survey released last Friday shows Bridgewater leading Lee by nine points, 42 percent to 33 percent. That’s good news for Bridgewater, who took first place at the GOP nominating convention in May, where he earned 57 percent of the delegate vote to Lee’s 43 percent. Despite the gap, Lee still has hope. According to the poll, a quarter of Utah Republicans are undecided. “This is going to be very, very difficult to call,” Dan Jones, the poll’s director, told the newspaper. “In the old vernacular, this is a horse race.” Neither candidate, Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post points out, is “well known — making it tough for less engaged voters to differentiate between the two.”
“I’m not well known in terms of name identification,” Bridgewater says. “So running a strong grassroots campaign has been important, saying I want to help take back the country. Voters, I believe, are responding.” Lee, for his part, doesn’t pay much attention to the polls. “I don’t think we’re behind,” he says. “If anything, we’re ahead. The numbers are highly fluid.”
Low turnout is expected. The Salt Lake Tribune predicts that about 10 percent of Republicans will show up, “meaning 140,000 voters . . . may effectively choose Utah’s next senator, since Utah hasn’t elected a Democrat in four decades.” Back in June 2004, another GOP primary during the sleepy days of summer yielded a mere 14 percent turnout statewide. “This is going to be all about turnout,” Bridgewater says. “Only 12 to 14 percent of Republicans will come out for this primary.”
Regardless of who ends up the victor, Lee says the party can “unite” come tomorrow, and that despite a rollicking battle, the state party is “not fractured.” Whoever wins, of course, will find himself, unlike Bennett, at the bottom of the Senate totem pole. “Your ability to influence anything is pretty much zero,” joked Bennett last week.
While that may be, whoever wins the GOP primary can count on one thing: Come November, he’ll be the heavy, heavy favorite to beat Democrat Sam Granato.
– Robert Costa is the William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at the National Review Institute.