Tea Partier Mike Lee: The ‘future Jim DeMint’ of the Senate?

Alex Pappas Political Reporter
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Senator-elect Mike Lee acknowledges that he could very well become one of the most conservative members of the upper chamber when he takes office in January.

But don’t take that to mean the Utah lawyer taking over a reliably safe GOP seat plans on becoming a conservative flamethrower.

He says that’s not his style.

“The term flamethrower is not something that I would say is self descriptive when it comes to me,” Lee said in a phone interview while returning from a tour of a Utah Air Force base. “That’s not really my personality to be a flamethrower. That implies someone out there who wants to stir things up just for the sake of stirring things up.”

Despite the fact that Lee, who had never run for office until this year, epitomizes the notion of a Tea Party candidate, you’ve probably haven’t heard much about him.

He easily won November’s general election after defeating sitting Republican Sen. Bob Bennett in the GOP primary this spring. Tea Party-affiliated groups like Dick Armey’s FreedomWorks aided the self-described “conservative, Tea Party Republican” during that primary.

“I’m actually more excited about his election than probably any other senator,” said Brendan Steinhauser, the director of federal and state campaigns at FreedomWorks.

Steinhauser, referencing the conservative godfather from South Carolina, described Lee as “the future Jim DeMint.” He also said he could see Lee becoming “DeMint’s key lieutenant.”

Lee has a simple vision of his role as a senator: “I do intend to be a faithful and consistent advocate of the principles I believe in, including the idea embedded in our Constitution that the powers of the federal government are limited in their scope.”

A review by The Daily Caller of his policy positions backs that philosophy up.

Lee says his dream legislation is a balanced budget amendment.

“It’s a dream, but it’s a realistic one,” he explained. “I think we need it. I think we need it right now. I think it needs to be something that tells Congress they can’t spend more than it takes in a given year and it can’t spend more than 20 percent of GDP in a given year.”

How does Lee fare on other issues?

He thinks the 14th Amendment should be re-written to stop “anchor babies” or children born to illegal-aliens in the United States from receiving automatic citizenship. He wants to defund and repeal Obamacare. He’s for replacing the current tax system with a fair or flat tax and he says “Congress has no business regulating our nation’s public education system.”

He once called the 17th Amendment, which calls for the direct election of senators, “a mistake,” and he’s for establishing congressional term limits of 12 years.

He doesn’t support gay marriage or repealing the military’s “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy. On abortion, he says the “power to protect the most vulnerable members of society needs to be returned to the states.”

On social security, Lee says current retirees should be assured they won’t lose benefits, but those 55 or younger should be told “that we’re going to have to start making some difficult adjustments.” That could include, he said, “some means-based eligibility testing” and “raising the retirement age gradually.”

Asked about social issues, Lee said the federal government should have a very small role, as the “most contentions issues — most laws that govern the day to day aspects of most people’s lives — are determined by states, rather than by the federal government.”

He supports efforts to protect Israel, and says “military action would be justified” if Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad refuses to abandon his nuclear weapons ambitions.

When it comes to Iraq and Afghanistan, Lee says, “[f]oreign policy needs to be focused on protecting the homeland from attack, not on nation building.” He says troops should leave Afghanistan after all military targets “have been destroyed or neutralized and the Afghan National Army has been trained sufficiently to protect their own land from further Taliban incursion.”

Lee also says his “inclination is to vote against raising the national debt ceiling.”

Despite the Utah Republican’s ardent conservative views, one close friend and former colleague of Lee warns that the incoming senator should be viewed as a practical legislator who will work with Democrats.

“He’s a passionate advocate for his position,” said Mike Mower, who worked with Lee in former Utah Republican Gov. John Huntsman’s administration. “But that doesn’t mean he’s unwilling to listen to other points of view.”

Of the other incoming GOP freshman senators, Lee says he agrees “on a lot of things” with Kentucky’s Rand Paul, Florida’s Marco Rubio, Wisconsin’s Ron Johnson, Pennsylvania’s Pat Toomey and New Hampshire’s Kelly Ayotte.”

Asked about Paul’s talk of starting a Tea Party Caucus, Lee was non-committal about joining.

“We’ve talked about all sorts of things,” he said of his conversations with Paul. “That’s one of the many things that we’ve discussed.”

Mower, who said Lee was a “supportive” friend when his first wife died of cancer, said “a lot of us had encouraged Mike to consider office for a long time. He’s a unique individual. He’s not only charismatic and affable, but he’s also very bright and engaging. He has one of the sharpest wits in the Beehive state.”

Lee’s background does not appear to be very ordinary, especially in comparison to other senators.

He’s a Mormon who spent two years as a missionary in Texas working with Hispanic residents. The Brigham Young University graduate went on to clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito.

And Lee’s campaign biography introduces him this way: “Mike acquired his love for the Constitution early on while discussing everything from the Due Process Clause to the Second Amendment around the dinner table.”

Is that actually true?

“Yeah, I think I was about 30 before I realized that not every family does that,” Lee said with a laugh. “We talked about other things too. It’s not all we talked about, but we did talk about those things, and it was just part of growing up.”