Utah Sen. Mike Lee weathers intraparty attacks at GOP debate

Jun 1, 2022, 9:50 PM | Updated: Jun 13, 2022, 10:58 am
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, speaks during the 2014 Republican Leadership Conference on May 30, 2014 in N...
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, speaks during the 2014 Republican Leadership Conference on May 30, 2014 in New Orleans.

DRAPER, Utah (AP) — Republicans took aim at a politician known as one of former President Donald Trump’s most devoted allies on Wednesday, attacking incumbent Sen. Mike Lee and working to convince voters that one of Washington’s more polarizing figures may not be ideal for voters in one of the country’s most conservative states.

At a Republican Party debate held at a suburban Utah high school, Lee presented himself as a steadfast opponent of abortion, gun control and President Joe Biden. The two-term senator said he has worked to rein in the size of the federal government and defend the U.S. Constitution.

Though the audience took little issue with his platform, as the incumbent and presumptive frontrunner, Lee weathered a barrage of criticism from Ally Isom and Becky Edwards, the two candidates challenging him in Utah’s upcoming primary election.

“You’ve stayed too long in Washington when you forget who sent you there; when you can’t pass bills; when people refuse to work for you,” Isom, a one-time staffer of Gov. Gary Herbert, told an applauding audience.

While Lee appealed to party unity and mostly refrained from attacking either opponent, both Isom and Edwards attempted to strike a delicate balance at the debate, drawing enough distinction between their candidacies and Lee’s while avoiding appearing overwhelmingly negative or staking out positions that could alienate potential supporters.

“We have a president who’s making it — from gas to groceries — more expensive, and he wants to pile on more and more federal regulations. What we need in this moment is to make sure that we send a Republican majority back to the United States Senate this fall,” Lee said.

Isom has attempted to present herself as a governing conservative and an alternative for voters who have grown to see Lee as divisive and obstructionist for his frequent votes against bills that win support from other Senate Republicans.

Edwards, a former state lawmaker, has distinguished her candidacy with more moderate positions on issues such as abortion. At times on Wednesday, she even criticized Trump, who won by more than 20 percentage points in 2020. Without mentioning him by name, she rebuked Trump for casting doubt on the integrity of the election, both before and long after it was over.

“That was deeply concerning to me,” she said.

The 2020 election has emerged as a Senate race issue since text messages between Lee and former chief of staff Mark Meadows were published by CNN. The messages showed Lee in communication with Trump’s team in the lead-up to Jan. 20 and referenced his communication with state lawmakers mulling whether to send Congress elector slates in line with vote counts.

Lee repeated the defense he’s provided since the release of the texts, reminding critics that he ultimately voted to certify the results.

In the wake of the release of a draft U.S. Supreme Court decision that would overturn Roe v. Wade, Isom and Lee both described themselves as anti-abortion. Edwards said that, while against abortion, she would have preferred the court not revisit the case but, if elected, she would not vote to codify it.

All three candidates expressed sympathy for immigrants and refugees caught in what they acknowledged was a broken immigration system. Edwards and Isom said they supported efforts to streamline pathways to citizenship for immigrants already in the U.S., while Lee said he saw little chance for reform amid a crisis he blamed on Biden, who he called an “open borders president.”

Utah is among the country’s most conservative states, yet has historically stood out for unique political dynamics stemming from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, of which a majority of state residents are members.

The state has diverged from Republican orthodoxy with moderate positions on issues such as immigration. In 2016, a third-party candidate won so much of the presidential vote that Trump only won a plurality. And in 2018, Mitt Romney — among the GOP’s staunchest Trump critics — won a U.S. Senate seat with overwhelming support.

Though Isom and Edwards both made their opposition to some of Lee’s votes and rhetoric clear, neither attacked him scathingly by name, holding fast to the state’s unfailingly polite political culture.

This year’s Senate race — and whether Utah decides to stick with a senator known widely as a Trump-aligned hardliner — will reflect the extent of shifts underway in the Republican Party. The election will test the durability of the former president’s support as well as whether attacks on Lee’s lightning rod reputation resonate among voters.

The winner of the state’s June 28 primary will take on independent candidate Evan McMullin, who won the Democratic Party’s backing at its April convention.

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Utah Sen. Mike Lee weathers intraparty attacks at GOP debate