Wes Vernon
Templegate: Chicago politics spreads its wings--to Utah?
By Wes Vernon
June 14, 2010

As a phenomenon, political dirty tricks should shock no one in the adult world. Nonetheless, not every political precinct is in Chicago, and there is less tolerance for that way of attracting votes in some places than in others.


This is the story of a last-minute smear job that — so far — appears to have worked.

By way of background, every politically-aware person in the nation knows that Utah's three-term Senator Bob Bennett was denied re-nomination to his job. The senator's candidacy was eliminated by his own party at its state GOP convention May 8. The end result was that his two rivals — Mike Lee (an attorney and son of Reagan Solicitor General Rex Lee) and Tim Bridgewater (an international financier and longtime business partner of George W. Bush's brother Neil) — will face off in a statewide primary June 22. The winner of that contest is viewed as having a strong edge in the predominantly Republican state November 2.

Just prior to the convention, delegates received in the mail a flier picturing Mike Lee above the Salt Lake (Mormon) Temple and Senator Bob Bennett above the Capitol building in Washington. Below the pictures was the rhetorical question "Which candidate really has Utah values?"

Interestingly, most of the fliers went only to those delegates favoring Lee's opponents or to those who were listed as uncommitted — suggesting that if the Lee delegates had received them, the campaign might have had more time to mount an effective counter-offensive before the convention did its voting.

The backfire

What is for certain is that anyone in possession of the slightest acquaintance with Utah politics and culture would instinctively know that dragging Mormonism's most widely-known symbol into raw politics is pure political poison for anyone who perpetrates it.

It is thus not credible that this monument to the ham-handed was in any way engineered by Lee or anyone associated with his campaign. But subsequent polling of the delegates showed the flier damaged Mr. Lee, just as the mailer had obviously intended.

Prior to the convention, much of the speculation had Lee possibly garnering a super-majority (60%) of the delegate vote — in which case he would have avoided a runoff primary. In the actual balloting, Lee led all contenders in the first round, and Senator Bennett was eliminated in the second. But then, in the final showdown, it was Tim Bridgewater who ended up with 57.28% of the votes (just barely short of avoiding the primary runoff) and Lee trailing with 42.72%, after supporters of Bennett backed Bridgewater on the third ballot.


So the upshot of Templegate's political thuggery is that Lee goes into a primary season where his backers must spend time on defense explaining that their campaign had nothing to do with the flier.

Senator Jim DeMint (R-South Carolina) heads the group Senate Conservatives, which — as its title suggests — works to elect those Republican senators who shun the "pale pastels" (a term used by Ronald Reagan) of "moderate" (RINO) Republicanism. Both Lee and Bridgewater claim to be the true conservative, but DeMint is firmly in Lee's corner. On his organization's blog, Senator DeMint said of the last-minute mailings, "Negative attacks occur in politics all the time, but this one was very dirty...and very illegal" (bold type in original).

What is to be done?

There are reports that investigations of the mailing are underway by the FEC (Federal Elections Commission) and the FBI. The latter, as usual, is very closed-mouthed about either the substance or the very existence of its ongoing investigations. The FEC also keeps details about ongoing investigations confidential, but will acknowledge the existence of a probe if the inquiring party can name either the complainant or the target. Apparently, the most obvious names are not attached to any ongoing FEC effort to expose the perpetrator. Aside from that, federal investigators have thrown cold water on any notion that the case will be solved before the June 22 primary. (Early voting has already started.)

The dirty tricks apparently are ongoing. The campaign reported that robo calls went out to Republican voters again this past week claiming that Lee had the support of freshman Congressman Jason Chaffetz. Not so, and this claim appears to be another attempt to put Lee on the defensive, even though — as with the flier — he appears to be blindsided by it.

Ryan McCoy — a high official in Lee's camp — told this column he would love to have the backing of the very popular congressman, but that he knows Chaffetz — for reasons of protocol and of practical politics — observes the general unwritten wisdom that when you're running for office yourself, you don't butt into someone else's primary.

What is known

Thomas Burr of the Salt Lake Tribune's Washington bureau has done some digging, and according to his blog, this is what he has learned:

"[T]he answer of who paid for the now infamous Temple mailer may lie in an Alexandria, Va., consulting firm that has worked for and donated to Democrats....

"The mail permit used to ship the piece to delegates was Permit #1667 out of Cleveland, Ohio, which according to the U.S. Postal Service belongs to Hotcards.com, listed at 1600 E. 23rd Street I Cleveland."

A Hotcards rep who had the account told Burr the mailer was paid for by one Jordan Karp of Precision Strategies in Alexandria.

Repeated attempts by Burr — and later by this column — to reach Precision Strategies were to no avail as of this writing. Burr finds that Karp — listed as a partner — has supported and contributed to Democrats.

Meanwhile Senator Bennett has endorsed Bridgewater to succeed him in Washington, citing the latter's business experience, a background not unlike that of the senator himself. Lee has won the support of Stephen Covey, respected Utah author of Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

Pros and cons

Bridgewater, who rose from humble beginnings to the world of corporate finance, has been accused — by his opponent and others — of profiting from taxpayer money he has secured for his international clients (and his own ventures) through government programs. In fact, some Republicans in the state see the Bennett endorsement as a minus for Bridgewater, given that the senator lost out in part because of what they see as his eagerness to facilitate public-private business arrangements that leave the taxpayer holding the bag. Others think Bridgewater gains because Bennett is believed to be more popular among the state's GOP rank and file than he was with the delegates.

In an interview with the Provo Daily Herald, the candidate responded that — as one example — he had helped a client of his consultancy "specifically with access for getting some grants for development projects overseas" which he claimed involved exports of about 200 million dollars of equipment and services "and I think that creates jobs here in this country, here in this economy in Provo...."

Bridgewater has left a residue of resentment among fellow Republicans in Utah County (whose seat is Provo about 40 miles south of Salt Lake City) because a few years ago he resigned his brief chairmanship of the county Republican Party during campaign season to join a 12-person primary race for Congress (which he lost). He left behind in his county position a replacement whose stewardship is blamed by some for the narrow general election defeat that year of the GOP nominee to Jim Matheson. The latter remains to this day the only Democrat in the Utah congressional delegation.

Mike Lee is sometimes criticized — even among his supporters — as not always an adequate speaker on the campaign trail (a surprise to this writer, who heard both men at Washington meetings and thought they stated their respective cases well).

First-time candidate Lee also made a move that called into question his political judgment: At the state convention he was allocated three minutes to make his case as to why the delegates should nominate him. Some delegates reportedly were taken aback when he used much of his limited time to present a video of an endorsement by Senator DeMint.

The South Carolinian is as solid as they come, but those delegates wanted to hear from the candidate, not from an out-of-state surrogate, no matter how worthy.

Mr. Bridgewater has the fatter war chest — largely self-financed. However, contributions to the Lee campaign are picking up — in part because of his background as a clerk for Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito (twice), as Assistant U.S. Attorney in Salt Lake City, and as General Counsel to Governor Jon Huntsman, Jr., when Huntsman was in office.

Adding it all up

As to Templegate, we don't know all the facts beyond what we have outlined here. What is apparent is that with two candidates attempting to out-conservative each other, someone or some entity desperately wants Mike Lee out of that Senate race. That shadowy player is willing to commit a crime and risk jail time just to bring him down. There has to be a reason for that beyond "politics as usual."

Utah voters are entitled to some answers, but they may not get any before the primary next week. FEC investigations take months, sometimes years.

© Wes Vernon


The views expressed by RenewAmerica columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of RenewAmerica or its affiliates.
(See RenewAmerica's publishing standards.)


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