Did Senator Lee’s endorsements bring victory in Utah’s primary? – Deseret News
Did Senator Lee’s endorsements bring victory in Utah’s primary? – Deseret News

Rep. Celeste Maloy is on track to secure the Republican Party nomination against Colby Jenkins in the 2nd Congressional District primary, with a 214-vote lead after Tuesday’s count. Jenkins has confirmed he will request a recount after the state certification on July 22.

Maloy was endorsed by former President Donald Trump after ballots began hitting mailboxes in June, while Jenkins was endorsed by Utah Senator Mike Lee in April. The drawn-out showdown between the recently elected incumbent and her incendiary challenger has put a spotlight on their opposing endorsements, even as it has tested Maloy’s brief, seven-month voting record.

Lee broke with longstanding personal precedent – and the political norm of opposing fellow Republican lawmakers – when he endorsed Jenkins, a political newcomer, against Maloy, his newest congressional colleague from Utah, just two days before the Republican nominating convention in April, which Jenkins won 57% to 43%. Jenkins’ surprise victory forced a re-run of the primary and nearly ousted Maloy, who depended on a victory at the convention to get on the primary ballot.

The endorsement marked the first time Lee used his influence among Utah conservatives in a congressional primary in his home state. While some Lee supporters say his endorsement hurt his influence in the state overall, advisers to Lee and Jenkins say the gamble helped Lee’s political image.

According to Lee’s chief strategist Dan Hauser, the senior senator’s aggressive election strategy was vindicated by his ability to nearly defeat a highly supported incumbent, who was backed by Trump, with “an unknown but fantastic candidate.”

“He was running against our country’s former – and soon-to-be next – president and the entire Utah establishment – including the governor, the federal delegation, lobbyists, donors, much of the media and most of the advisers,” Hauser told Deseret News. “Senator Lee’s support alone has made the race so close that a recount is very likely. If that isn’t evidence of influence, I don’t know what is.”

Jenkins’ campaign adviser Greg Powers took a similar view of Lee’s endorsement. Lee’s endorsement was worthwhile because he showed that he could stand up to the GOP elite, something he has long been known for – even if his candidate is not nominated, Powers said.

“Either way, this is a clear win for the Lee brand. Going up against everyone else in the delegation and the former president and bringing someone in from nowhere – we started with 15% and invested that,” Powers said. “Mike Lee has already won this race.”

The impact of Lee’s support for the 2nd District

Lee’s endorsement sent shockwaves through Utah’s political circles — and surprised even some of his closest former aides — and gave Jenkins’ candidacy a boost, helping him garner statewide support, PAC spending and greater name recognition.

After the convention, Lee went all out for Jenkins, filling his social media with supportive posts, shooting video ads, sending fundraising emails and campaigning at events across the district, with a focus on conservative Washington County, where Jenkins leads 59 percent to 40 percent in the primary.

By that point, however, Lee’s support had largely lost momentum, according to a Utah Republican official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“If the senator had any influence anywhere, it would be at the convention,” the source said. “And the fact that it didn’t go the way he wanted was the decisive moment, so to speak.”

While some GOP insiders, including Glenn Beck, told Deseret News that Lee and Trump’s opposing endorsements did not reflect a major divide, the GOP official said it may have damaged the perception of Lee as a close Trump confidant.

“The worst part of the whole thing for Senator Lee was that it put him and former President Trump on opposite sides of the campaign,” the source said.

Trump intervened in his second primary campaign in Utah when he endorsed Maloy a week before the primary, adding his endorsement to a list of high-level supporters for Maloy that included two former senior Trump officials, as well as House Speaker Mike Johnson and Utah’s entire delegation to the U.S. House of Representatives.

The source said Lee’s support could not only damage Lee’s chances of winning a post in a future Trump administration, but could also create a permanent split within Utah’s congressional delegation. “And that’s a loss for him and an even bigger loss for the state.”

Utah County Commissioner Amelia Powers Gardner said she believes Lee’s endorsement made the 2nd District race more exciting, “but obviously not enough to help Colby Jenkins win.”

Powers Gardner, a Lee supporter who previously received his endorsement after serving as his campaign spokesman, is concerned that the senator’s increased involvement in the Utah election may have had the opposite effect of what he had hoped and that it has “significantly weakened his influence.”

Lee has been a candidate in a dozen state and local primaries this year. Powers Gardner said Lee was “100% wrong” in several primaries.

“I think he probably endorsed her because an associate said, ‘Hey, you should endorse this person,’ without knowing her or her opponent well enough to realize that the person he was endorsing probably didn’t align with his values,” Powers Gardner said. “And I think that actually affected the effectiveness of his endorsement.”

Overall, Lee won 10 of 12 seats in the state legislature and school board. His supporters included state Reps. Candice Pierucci (R-Riverton) and Trevor Lee (R-Layton).

“Senator Lee’s impact in Utah’s elections is already clear,” Hauser said. “Looking at this election cycle from a broader perspective, Senator Lee’s track record of support is remarkable.”

Maloy responds to Lee’s support

Lee’s endorsement in the 2nd District race seemed very deliberate. The move followed Maloy’s endorsement of the 2024 budget and bills to reauthorize government surveillance, which Lee opposed. Lee also conducted an extensive interview with Jenkins before his endorsement about how he would vote if elected.

Lee stressed that putting Jenkins’ thumb on the scale was not a personal affront to Maloy. The decision was made because a certain type of candidate was needed to break the country’s status quo on government spending, Lee previously told the Deseret News.

Lee had previously pushed back against the “characterization” of his endorsement as being “against” Maloy, saying he liked it and said he was concerned about damaging relationships in Utah but felt “compelled” to voice his opinion.

During a video press conference on Tuesday, Maloy jokingly thanked Lee for her involvement in the election campaign because it strengthened her own candidacy.

“Tough racing makes for tough members,” Maloy said. “So first of all I want to say thank you for making me the toughest member I could be in such a short period of time.”

Maloy ran two convention campaigns, two primary campaigns and one general election campaign last year. She was elected to Congress in a special election in November 2023.

In her nearly eight months in office, Maloy has co-sponsored a bill with Lee to transfer some federal lands to Utah, passed a bill to improve state programs for women-owned small businesses, pushed the Justice Department to crack down on teen vaping, and voted against further military aid to Ukraine.

“There’s more to come,” Maloy said Tuesday. “I’m a conservative Republican. President Trump has endorsed me, he knows I’m behind him. We’re going to have a lot of good conservative victories.”

Maloy is currently working on bills to protect states’ water rights and streamline federal permitting processes, and her staff in Washington, D.C., continues to work with Lee’s on co-sponsored legislation, she said Tuesday.

Maloy told reporters she did not know why Lee endorsed her opponent. “But it looks like he and I will continue to be colleagues and I will be the best colleague I can be because that’s what Utah needs from me.”

Lee and Trump support other elections in Utah

Eight days before the June 25 primary, Lee endorsed Republican Sen. Mike Kennedy of Alpine for Utah’s vacant 3rd Congressional District seat. That endorsement, which came much later than Lee’s others, resulted in the senator making a short video for the candidate but doing little else to support him.

Kennedy won the five-candidate race by more than 17 percentage points with over 39% of the vote. Kennedy had previously won the Republican national convention with 61.5% of the vote.

Trump tested his kingmaker status with an unexpected endorsement in Utah’s race to succeed Mitt Romney. On the morning of the nominating convention on April 27, the former president endorsed Riverton Mayor Trent Staggs for the U.S. Senate.

Staggs won by a landslide among the delegates at the convention, 70% to 30%, followed by John Curtis, who defeated Staggs in the four-candidate primary, 49% to 33%.

By Isla