Sen. Mike Lee is an unlikely outsider.
The Utah Republican burst onto the political scene in 2010 as a Tea Party stalwart, ousting three-term Sen. Bob Bennett in a primary. But prior to that campaign -- Lee's first for elected office -- he rose through the ranks of Utah's GOP establishment at least partly on the coattails of his family's deep political connections. Among his plum, insider gigs: general counsel to then-Gov. Jon Huntsman and law clerk to Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito.
The freshman senator recently elevated his profile by leading the charge to defund Obamacare through budget negotiations, pushing congressional Republicans into October's 16-day government shutdown. The episode left the Republican Party's approval rating in tatters. Some Utah Republicans who dealt with the lawyerly, low-key Lee when he worked for Huntsman were surprised to see him playing the role of partisan antagonist, but Huntsman thought it was in character.
“Mike is truly focused on ideology -- and I say that in a positive sense,” the Republican former governor and 2012 presidential candidate told the Washington Examiner.
Many Republicans in Washington are scratching their heads, trying to figure out who the real Lee is: The strident, inflexible shutdown warrior or the thoughtful legislator who a few days after the government reopened told the Heritage Foundation that Republicans must put aside politics and focus on a positive agenda aimed at helping the middle class.
Huntsman argued after his presidential campaign that Republicans were too partisan and uncompromising with President Obama and the Democrats. That notwithstanding, he had nothing but good things to say about Lee, praising his "creative mind" and describing him as a loyal soldier and "problem solver."
Utah Republicans familiar with Lee's political background seem to agree on this much: The senator has consistently viewed public policy through a legal lens and favored reining in the federal government. Few are surprised that he has carved out a philosophical niche as a constitutional conservative.
In an interview, Lee, 42, shrugged when asked to reconcile his support for shuttering the government and his admonition that Republicans must do more than simply oppose Obama.
“I never have believed that a senator’s job done well would involve only opposing bad things or only supporting good things. It has to include both,” Lee said.
In the effort to defund Obamacare, Lee allied himself with firebrand Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and a host of influential conservative advocacy and Tea Party organizations that loathe the so-called "GOP establishment." That collaboration placed the senator in the populist, outsider wing of the Republican Party, an unlikely position given his political pedigree.
The senator’s father, Rex Lee, was steeped in the political establishment in Washington and Utah, and that exposed Lee from an early age to the world he would later join. The elder Lee served as an assistant U.S. attorney and as President Reagan's solicitor general. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, then in his first term, helped boost Rex Lee’s Senate confirmation. Hatch also got to know the younger Lee, who spent time in the Senate as a page.
While his father worked in Washington, Lee spent some his childhood in McLean, Va. His schoolmates included the children of U.S. senators, including a son of Harry Reid, the Nevada Democrat and future Senate majority leader. Lee graduated from Brigham Young University's law school, of which his father was the founding dean. (Rex Lee went on to serve as president of BYU, an influential post in Utah society and political circles.)
Mike Lee did his first clerkship in the U.S. District Court for Utah for Judge Dee Benson, Hatch’s former Senate chief of staff. Lee then clerked for Alito on the U.S. Court of Appeals, and later clerked for him again after Alito was elevated to the Supreme Court. (Years before, Alito had served as assistant to the solicitor general under Lee’s father.) Before going into politics, Lee worked at leading law firms in Washington and Utah.
Lee’s older brother, Thomas Lee, was appointed to the Utah Supreme Court in 2010.
“He checked a lot of establishment boxes on his way to the Senate,” said Kirk Jowers, director of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.
But like Huntsman, Hatch is hardly surprised by how Mike Lee positioned himself politically in the chamber. Utah’s senior senator said Lee’s judicial philosophy of limited constitutional government has always been the animating force in his approach to public service.
“Mike’s main concern is constitutional issues,” Hatch said. “He’s interpreted the Constitution the way he has and that’s why he’s gone the way he has.”