5 takeaways from Mike Lee’s leadership bid

5 takeaways from Mike Lee’s leadership bid
© Greg Nash

Sen. Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeDems sound alarm over top DOJ nominee Restore Pell Grant eligibility to people in prison Former Democratic aide pleads guilty to doxing GOP senators attending Kavanaugh hearing MORE’s bid to enter the Senate Republican leadership next year came to an abrupt end Sunday when he announced to colleagues via email that he would suspend his campaign.

Lee, a rising Tea Party star from Utah, said he was ending his bid to be the GOP’s policy committee chairman to avoid further turmoil in the GOP conference.


Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSenate Republicans tested on Trump support after Mueller Anti-smoking advocates question industry motives for backing higher purchasing age Former Bush assistant: Mueller report makes Obama look 'just plain bad' MORE (R-Ky.) effectively quashed Lee’s effort by arguing that the current chairman, Sen. John BarrassoJohn Anthony BarrassoOvernight Energy: Gillibrand offers bill to ban pesticide from school lunches | Interior secretary met tribal lawyer tied to Zinke casino dispute | Critics say EPA rule could reintroduce asbestos use GOP senator issues stark warning to Republicans on health care Judd Gregg: In praise of Mike Enzi MORE (R-Wy.), didn’t face a term limit until the end of 2018. As a result, Lee likely won't be able to run for a vacant leadership position.

Here are five takeaways from Lee’s failed bid.

McConnell has a strong hold on the GOP conference

The Senate Republican Conference last week proved itself largely immune to the restlessness of the party base.

Republican colleagues quickly rallied around McConnell’s argument that his leadership team has been doing a fine job and deserves another two years without having to run for new posts.

Had Lee’s argument that the partial term served by the leadership in 2012 should be counted under the term-limit rule succeeded, Senate Republican Conference Chairman John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneTelehealth is calling — will Congress pick up? GOP grows tired of being blindsided by Trump Hillicon Valley: Assange faces US charges after arrest | Trump says WikiLeaks 'not my thing' | Uber officially files to go public | Bezos challenges retail rivals on wages | Kremlin tightens its control over internet MORE (S.D.) and Vice Chairman Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntGOP senator: 'No problem' with Mueller testifying The Hill's Morning Report — Mueller aftermath: What will House Dems do now? Graham says he's 'not interested' in Mueller testifying MORE (Mo.) would have had to step down this year.

“This demonstrates the faith of the Republican conference in Sen. McConnell as the Republican leader and should dissuade any other Republicans from throwing their hat in the ring until the appropriate time,” said Ron Bonjean, a former Senate GOP leadership aide.

Lee’s stock will take a short-term hit

Lee is a star among conservative activists. He is Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzMichael Bennet declared cancer-free, paving way for possible 2020 run Booker, Harris have missed most Senate votes O'Rourke sweeps through Virginia looking to energize campaign MORE’s closest friend in the Senate, something that’s now more of an asset as the party establishment rallies behind the Texan as an alternative to front-runner Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpThorny part of obstruction of justice is proving intent, that's a job for Congress Obama condemns attacks in Sri Lanka as 'an attack on humanity' Schiff rips Conway's 'display of alternative facts' on Russian election interference MORE in the presidential race.

Lee’s allies were shocked that he received such strong criticism from colleagues last week, which one source described as “vicious.”

But inside the Senate, lawmakers and aides panned Lee’s bid as miscalculated and rash. They say he should have made sure a majority of his GOP colleagues agreed with his interpretation of the rules that Barrasso and others were term-limited this year.

“It’s always important to do a whip check of Republican senators before you actually announce a run, because if a senator doesn’t have much support then it’s going to be embarrassing to pull back,” Bonjean said.

It’s hard to imagine McConnell, who has a reputation for his ability to see the political chessboard five moves into the future, making the same mistake.

One veteran GOP lawmaker speculated that Lee knew his bid would fall short and launched it anyway to rally conservative groups behind him, building his power base for the future.

But in the short run, it antagonized colleagues who felt he was needlessly rocking the boat.

The gap between Senate GOP leaders and the base widens

McConnell has been a piñata for conservative activists for years, which Cruz astutely realized when he called his leader a liar on the Senate floor during a debate over the reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank.

Senate colleagues were shocked by Cruz’s breach of decorum, but it played well with conservative voters, who flocked to his presidential campaign instead of the establishment GOP favorites, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioSenate Republicans tested on Trump support after Mueller Cuban negotiator says Trump's efforts to destabilize Cuba's government will fail Freedom to Compete Act would benefit many American workers MORE (Fla.).

McConnell and Lee, along with Cruz, live on different ends of the GOP’s approach to governing. While McConnell has been a pragmatist throughout his career, stepping in at times to broker deals, such as the debt-limit accord of 2011, Lee and Cruz put a premium on sticking to conservative ideals.

If senators had embraced Lee’s candidacy, conservative activists say it would have helped bridge the divide between party leaders and the base. Instead, the opposite happened.

“They should embrace him. He is going to be, one day, the ideas wing of the GOP. He has such a great reputation with grassroots activists across the country,” said Adam Brandon, the president and CEO of FreedomWorks, a conservative advocacy group that endorsed Lee last week. “If the GOP embraced him, it would do a lot to help their standing with the base.”

Although Lee has served in the Senate since 2011, he is still viewed as an outsider because of his election six years ago as a Tea Party insurgent and for his relationship with Cruz.

Dan Holler, the spokesman for Heritage Action for America, another conservative group, praised Lee as “at the forefront of conservative policy innovation.”

The Tea Party has little weight in the Senate 

While the Tea Party, as represented by the House Freedom Caucus, wields significant power in the lower chamber, it barely registers in the Senate.

The House Freedom Caucus played a role in pushing former Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew Boehner20 years after Columbine, Dems bullish on gun reform Dem says marijuana banking bill will get House vote this spring Trump appears alongside Ocasio-Cortez on Time 100 list MORE (R-Ohio) out of power in 2015 and sinking efforts to pass a House Republican budget this year, but there’s no equivalent in the Senate.

Cruz, arguably the biggest Tea Party star in the upper chamber, is spending all his time on the presidential campaign trail. Rubio and Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulBooker, Harris have missed most Senate votes Trump vetoes measure ending US support for Saudi-led war in Yemen Bottom line MORE (Ky.), two big-name conservatives who were elected to Congress as Tea Party rebels, just got back from the trail and showed little appetite for a clash with McConnell.

Sen. David VitterDavid Bruce VitterBottom Line Bottom Line Top 5 races to watch in 2019 MORE (La.), a conservative with a hearty independent streak, is still nursing wounds from his embarrassing gubernatorial loss, and Sen. Tom CottonThomas (Tom) Bryant CottonOvernight Defense: Senators show skepticism over Space Force | Navy drops charges against officers in deadly collision | Trump taps next Navy chief Senators show deep skepticism on Space Force proposal GOP senators introduce bill to reduce legal immigration  MORE (Ark.), a conservative who’s shown a willingness to challenge the leadership, didn’t show much interest in an arcane rules fight.

Had they banded together behind Lee, the effort might have snowballed. Instead, they failed to coalesce while McConnell was circling Lee’s wagons.

“There clearly is not a very strong conservative caucus in the Republican Party in the Senate. The Tea Party caucus is very weak, and that’s a function of the fact that there aren’t enough conservative senators in the caucus to bring it more to the right,” said Brian Darling, a former Senate aide.

Unity is Senate Republicans’ top priority in 2016

Thune and Sen. Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar Alexander Embattled senators fill coffers ahead of 2020 GOP senators divided on Trump trade pushback Five things to know about the measles outbreak MORE (R-Tenn.) have called for a meeting to discuss the term-limit rules, which will take place Tuesday.

Expect senators to rally around McConnell’s interpretation that his leadership team should be kept intact.

In an election year when Senate Republicans need to protect 24 seats while Democrats only have to worry about 10, they see unity as the best defense.

During an acrimonious meeting last week, Sen. Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerPollster says Trump unlikely to face 'significant' primary challenge GOP gets used to saying 'no' to Trump Democrats introduce bill to rein in Trump on tariffs MORE (R-Tenn.) complained that Lee’s staff on the Republican Steering Committee worked with outside groups to undermine legislation pushed by fellow Republican senators.

Others complained about outside groups targeting GOP incumbents and linking those efforts to Lee’s leadership bid.

Barrasso has been the consummate team player, GOP senators say. He sticks to the leadership’s talking points and has pitched in to individual senators’ reelection efforts, making him popular — or at least not controversial — with many colleagues.

The drama of a leadership race at a time when many lawmakers are worried about reelection was not well received. Had Lee announced his bid after the election, he might have done better.

“Job No. 1 is retaining the majority, so this came at a really difficult time. It would have split the conference at a time they’re trying to show a united front,” said John Ullyot, a former Senate Republican aide. “It’s just not a good time to have a distracting fight.”




— This post was updated at 11:19 p.m. Lee could choose to challenge Barrasso for the Republican Policy Committee chairmanship under McConnell's interpretation of the rules. Lee says he won't do so. An earlier version of this story included incorrect information.