Establishment Strikes Out in Plans to Challenge Mike Lee with Jon Huntsman

Rick Bowmer/AP
Rick Bowmer/AP

Former Utah Gov. John Huntsman will not primary Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), a major strikeout for the GOP establishment,which has been looking for someone to take on the conservative leader.

“I don’t rule out another run, but not against Mike,” Huntsman told Deseret News, a local outlet in Utah, via text message. “We don’t always agree (who does) but he’s very capable.”

CNN anchor John King had touted Huntsman as a potential challenger to Lee—the GOP establishment has been trying to take him down in a primary in much the same way Tea Partiers have taken down so-called Republicans-In-Name-Only, but has come up short looking for candidates. Huntsman’s decision to not run means they’re likely to come up short entirely.

Huntsman did tell the local outlet that he had “no formal plans” to help Lee get re-elected, adding that: “We’ll see what happens after his announcement for re-election.”

Huntsman was elected twice as Utah’s governor and was by far the GOP establishment’s best chance at beating Lee in state. He resigned from his gubernatorial post in 2009 after President Barack Obama named him his ambassador to China—a position from which he resigned to run for president unsuccessfully in 2012.

“The Deseret News reported Monday that several political insiders and business leaders in Utah reportedly have spoken with Huntsman and indicated he had not ruled out getting in the race,” the Deseret News wrote. “Huntsman did not respond to a request for comment until that story was published.”

Frank Luntz, a GOP establishment pollster plugged in closely with the business community, told the local outlet, after a recent visit to Utah, he doesn’t expect any challenge of Lee to happen.

“Foolish. Look, I am as pro-business as they come,” Luntz told the outlet. “When you get someone with the power and the influence and the sway of Mike Lee, you don’t abandon them.”

Lee’s senior adviser, Boyd Matheson, told the local outlet that Lee is focused on advancing his conservative reform agenda—an economic populism for which Lee has been praised by many leading conservatives. Most recently, Lee was profiled by the Weekly Standard, which called him “the most important Republican not running for president.” He is now the chairman of the conservative Senate Steering Committee, a post from which he is able to advance grassroots conservative and populist policies.

“We have always had the mantra that if he executes his strategy, it wouldn’t matter who runs against him,” Matheson said, explaining that that is “bringing the party together around a positive agenda for the country, so he’s not worried about hypotheticals.”

Lee will be the opening speaker at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) later this month, an annual gathering of conservative activists from around the country hosted by the American Conservative Union. In a recent interview for a profile on the event’s move to the right under new leadership, ACU chairman Matt Schlapp and executive director Dan Schneider laid out for Breitbart News how Lee is “uniquely important” to conservatism and how it’s “not an accident that he is speaking at the start of CPAC.”


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