SALT LAKE CITY — A political novice has outlasted a three-term U.S. senator and the winner of the GOP state convention to become Utah Republicans' Senate nominee and the heavy favorite to win the general election.
Alpine Attorney Mike Lee won the GOP nomination over Provo businessman Tim Bridgewater on Tuesday, capping off a meteoric rise to political prominence that didn't start until he declared his candidacy in January.
He earned a nearly 4,000-vote lead with 99 percent of precincts reporting for about 51 percent of the vote to Bridgewater's nearly 49 percent.
Lee, a legal scholar, grew up in a family of lawyers who discussed the Constitution over dinners. He was part of a crowded field of Republican challengers who wanted to knock off U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett at the May convention because they didn't think Bennett was conservative enough.
Of Bennett's original seven GOP challengers, it was Bridgewater and Lee who advanced to a primary.
Bridgewater won 57 percent of the convention vote — 3 percent more and he would have won the Republican nomination outright.
Lee said he never gave up believing that he could win, despite never having sought elected office before.
"We had an army of really hard-fighting, hard-campaigning volunteers and they just refused to quit because they believed in a message and a 223-year-old document."
Lee, 38, is a former clerk to Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito and briefly served as former Gov. Jon Huntsman's general counsel. His father, Rex Lee, was a Brigham Young University law school dean and solicitor general under President Ronald Reagan, and his brother Tom Lee has been nominated to the Utah Supreme Court.
Lee readily acknowledges his childhood was different from most. He frequently tells tales of attending Supreme Court hearings with his father when he was 10 years old.
"It helped me develop an understanding of how the operations of government really do end up having an impact on people's lives. My dad was really good at explaining to us in very practical terms what his cases were about, why they were important, and being there and seeing him in action sort of helped me understand that," Lee said.
Lee frequently dazzled GOP convention delegates by citing from memory articles and clauses in the Constitution.
He wants to cut federal spending, repeal the new federal health care reform law, suspend congressional earmarks and mandate term limits.
Lee will be the clear favorite to win against Democratic nominee Sam Granato, a political newcomer who is a restaurateur and chairman of the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.
A Democrat hasn't won a U.S. Senate race in Utah since 1970.
Granato immediately began courting Bridgewater's supporters.
"We are all Utahns and, in the end, I believe our many shared values far outweigh our few differences," Granato said in a statement.
"If we put partisanship aside, I believe we can develop common sense solutions to the important issues, including a return to fiscal responsibility, sustainable economic growth and long-term job creation."