Yet just three months later—after a handful of candidates turned down the opportunity to challenge Lee— Anderson's name appeared on a list of cochairs released by Lee’s reelection campaign, along with Huntsman's son, former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. In that release, Anderson praised Lee for "[collaborating] on an agenda focused on meaningful reform."
What happened in between, Lee’s allies say, was a bit of small-state diplomacy. In meetings set up by his friends in the business community, Lee wooed his critics in Salt Lake City’s business elite, a relatively small group, but one with outsized political influence in the state. By winning over figures such as Anderson and Huntsman, Lee effectively chilled the ambitions of anyone hoping to run against him with the state’s establishment’s backing.
“Mike is a quick study. … He saw that he was having challenges with the mainstream conservatives in this state,” said Lew Cramer, CEO of the real-estate brokerage Coldwell Banker Commercial Advisors. Cramer, a self-described moderate and longtime friend of the Lees, helped set up some of the meetings in the hope that his colleagues could see what he sees in Lee: a talented young senator who has matured since 2013.
“There’s a lot of Far-Right voices here that helped get him elected, and they’re fine individuals, but there’s better ways to govern, we think, and I think Mike’s come around to that view point as well,” said Cramer. “Jon Huntsman’s a moderate, Scott Anderson’s a moderate, I’m a moderate, and I wanted to ensure that my friends saw that he was more than just a bomb-thrower.
“We got about a dozen people together who sat down and said, ‘Senator Lee, we really want to see progress in this country; we want you to be a unifier, not the senator from Ted Cruz country but the senator from Utah,’” said Cramer. “He wants to do the right thing, he’s matured in office, and he could be a force going forward for us.”
Late last year, Lee also made a strategic change to his office staff. In December, he hired Neil Ashdown, Huntsman Jr.’s former chief of staff, to serve the same role in his Senate office. Lee’s then-chief of staff, Boyd Matheson, then took over his political operation in Utah.
Though Ashdown had to step down for personal reasons in April, the hire sent a signal to Utah’s old-line Republicans that Lee could work with them.
The effort was successful enough that, since Lee announced his campaign cochairs this spring, that campaign has all but gone into hibernation. After raising close to $800,000 in each of the winter and spring fundraising periods, Lee’s most recent quarterly haul was just $400,000. A campaign rollout that was planned for August was postponed, his allies say, and likely won’t happen until the first of the year.
“There was just no purpose for it; people are just not thinking about this race for it right now,” said Lee adviser Bud Scruggs, a longtime Utah political hand who worked on Sen. Orrin Hatch’s campaigns.