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Mike Lee’s PAC Goes After the GOP Establishment

For Sen. Mike Lee, cutting checks to support conservative Senate candidates wasn’t enough.

So the Utah Republican launched the Constitutional Conservatives Fund political action committee. Modeled after Sen. Jim DeMint’s (R-S.C.) Senate Conservatives Fund PAC, the campaign organization hopes to provide financial, strategic and material support to candidates it endorses.

Lee’s PAC, still in its infancy, has raised little money and lacks dedicated advisers,  and the freshman Senator, elected on the strength of tea party support in the Republican wave of 2010, so far cannot match DeMint’s star power.

But Lee — himself a beneficiary of DeMint’s PAC — hopes over time to join South Carolina’s junior Senator in helping to boost the ranks of anti-establishment conservatives on Capitol Hill. DeMint has occasionally backed candidates in Republican primaries that GOP leaders opposed on electability grounds. Lee is focused almost exclusively on backing GOP primary candidates who share his views on the Constitution and limited government — another potential headache for the Republican establishment if his PAC becomes a force.

“I’m trying to pay it forward and look for people who share my vision of constitutional conservatism and help them out — particularly relative unknown challengers who are new to Washington,” Lee said Thursday in an interview. “I’m not Jim DeMint, I don’t have a huge war chest, so to speak, like he does. But I can help [candidates] monetarily to a limited degree through the PAC — but I can also help them just by helping them become more known.”

CCF has backed six Senate candidates running this year in GOP primaries — among them are two endorsements Lee publicized in Washington, D.C., during last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference. His PAC has backed Daniel Bongino in Maryland, Ted Cruz in Texas, Clark Durant in Michigan, Rep. Jeff Flake in Arizona, Sarah Steelman in Missouri and Don Stenberg in Nebraska.

But CCF does not yet appear to be in a position to offer these candidates significant financial backing or other support beyond the limited attention that comes from Lee’s personal seal of approval. The PAC raised slightly more than $26,000 while spending nearly $29,000 for the six-month period ending Dec. 31, leaving it with just more than $2,500 in cash on hand. As of yet, there are no strategists on its payroll nor are any fundraisers on retainer.

Lee, who also maintains LEE PAC as a vehicle to provide financial support to his Republican colleagues in the Senate, readily acknowledged that CCF is a work in progress. A CCF representative confirmed that the PAC is in a period of operational transition. The PAC is looking for fundraising consultants in various regions of the country and eventually hopes to hire personnel to oversee its day-to-day and political operations.

Lee advanced to Congress by ousting Sen. Bob Bennett in a GOP primary convention, in one of the clearest examples of the tea party uprising that characterized the 2010 election cycle. The Utahn has brought that approach with him to the Senate. And in deciding whether to endorse, he focuses largely on whether a candidate’s views match his. As someone who interprets the Constitution strictly, Lee believes the government should do only what the document specifically enumerates and that the current federal government has expanded beyond its intended scope.

How much public attention he can bring to constitutional conservatism factors into Lee’s endorsements. In some cases, pushing his vision of limited government through endorsements is just as important to Lee as whether the candidate he backs can actually win in a general election. That would explain Lee’s endorsement of Bongino in Maryland, where Republicans are not expected to be competitive in November.

“It’s as much about the message in who we endorse as the person; it’s about elevating the message,” the CCF representative said.

In contrast, DeMint is looking for candidates who share a broader range of conservative credentials, including opposing abortion rights and supporting his call for Congressional term limits, according to the criteria as described at the SCF website.

Lee said he has been meeting with one or two candidates per week during the past few months.

“I ask candidates to describe for me their vision for the federal government. What’s the proper role of the federal government? How do you view Congress’ authority? And I listen to their answer, and that’s probably the single most important question that I ask,” Lee said.

Given that Lee is not yet in a position to invest significant resources on a candidate, their electoral viability might be less of concern to him than it might be for DeMint, whose PAC raised
$9.3 million last cycle for the candidates the South Carolinian endorsed. The SCF has raised $4.3 million this cycle and has endorsed four candidates: Cruz, Stenberg, Ohio’s Josh Mandel and Wisconsin’s Mark Neumann.

DeMint’s PAC bundles campaign cash for candidates, allowing donors to go to its website and direct money to the candidates of their choice. SCF also runs television ads and offers other strategic assistance. A Republican strategist who has monitored DeMint’s PAC and the Senator’s effort to help elect conservatives to the Senate said Lee is in a good position to “replicate” his colleague’s success.

This GOP strategist said DeMint has succeeded in part by looking outside of Washington and K Street to raise money for SCF — and because he endorsed candidates who had solid grass-roots support.

“Lee’s approach is very similar, and it can definitely work for him,” this source said. “He might not be as well-known as DeMint right now, but nobody knew who DeMint was three years ago. If Mike Lee continues to fight on behalf of conservatives, his profile will grow. If he combines that with good endorsements, people will trust him.”

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