Attorney Mike Lee won Utah’s GOP Senate nomination on Tuesday and is all but assured he’ll be headed to Congress next year to represent his overwhelmingly Republican state.
With 99 percent of precincts reporting, Lee led businessman Tim Bridgewater 51 percent to 49 percent. Lee’s victory comes as the second rebuke of Sen. Bob Bennett (R) by state Republicans in two months.
Bennett, whose willingness to occasionally partner with Democrats in the Senate made him a top target of tea party groups and conservative activists this cycle, was kept out of the primary by finishing third at the GOP nominating convention on May 8. After contemplating a write-in campaign, Bennett decided to throw his support behind Bridgewater. While Bridgewater embraced the third-term Senator’s support, Lee’s camp said the endorsement would only serve to offer a fresh outlet for the anti-Bennett sentiment in the state.
Lee was viewed as an underdog entering the primary after Bridgewater turned in a surprisingly strong showing at the GOP state nominating convention and came 3 points shy of securing the nomination outright.
Bridgewater left the convention with the early momentum but Lee earned an important endorsement that day from South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint (R), who has sought a high profile in helping to decide Republican contests this cycle. DeMint’s political action committee helped funnel nearly $200,000 to Lee, which helped him stay competitive against the wealthy Bridgewater, who pumped about $400,000 of his own money into his campaign.
Both Lee and Bridgewater sought to rally support from outside conservative groups, and both found success in that effort. But late in the campaign, Lee, who was a clerk for Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, also found a receptive audience in libertarian and constitutionalist circles.
Last week he earned a high-profile endorsement from libertarian champion Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas).
Elsewhere in Utah on Tuesday, Rep. Jim Matheson (D) proved more than capable of handling his first primary challenge by easily defeating retired teacher and progressive activist Claudia Wright (D) in the 2nd district.
With 98 percent reporting, Matheson led 68 percent to 33 percent.
Matheson was forced into a primary for the first time in his 10-year Congressional career because he earned less than 60 percent of the vote at the state Democratic nominating convention in May. Wright was able to take 45 percent of the vote at the convention by finding support among progressives who were frustrated with the Blue Dog Congressman’s conservative voting record. That group was especially upset with Matheson’s opposition to the health care reform legislation that passed the House in March.
But while Wright did well among the more liberal party activists who attend the convention, she was simply outgunned in a primary fight with a larger electorate.
From the end of April through June 2 Matheson burned through more than $430,000, according to Federal Election Commission reports. Wright spent about $17,000 during that time.