SALT LAKE CITY -- Utah voters replaced Republican U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett on Tuesday with a tea party favorite who has vowed to repeal President Barack Obama's health care reform legislation when he gets to Washington.
Republican constitutional law attorney Mike Lee defeated Democratic restaurateur Sam Granato, giving Lee his first election victory since he served as BYU student body president in the 1990s.
"It's very exciting. There's not a moment to waste," Lee said.
Lee was heavily favored to win Bennett's seat in this conservative state after winning the GOP nomination. Bennett failed to reach the GOP primary after delegates to the state convention said the 77-year-old was not conservative enough for Utah.
Among other things, Bennett was skewered for supporting a bailout of the nation's financial industry and for proposing a bill that would have mandated health insurance coverage.
After Lee squeaked by another tea party-backed Republican in the June primary, he largely disappeared from the public eye, comfortable that his conservative credentials would carry him to victory in November.
A Democrat hasn't won a U.S. Senate seat in Utah since 1970.
Granato had never run for elected office before. He struggled to raise money and his campaign went months without posting material on his website. When it did, there was scant information about his policy positions. He was often difficult to track down and his campaign sometimes waited days to issue statements.
Granato got a late boost when several Republicans threw their support behind him, including Bennett's son, Jim Bennett.
Granato tried to paint Lee as too extreme for Utah, saying Lee wants to eliminate Social Security, break up families that include illegal immigrants and put scores of projects at risk because Lee didn't want federal funding for them.
For the most part, Lee had no problem with the characterization.
He says children of illegal immigrants shouldn't be U.S. citizens, that entitlement programs must be scaled back or eliminated and that he doesn't want to secure earmarks for state projects.
Lee says one of his top priorities will be to pass a balanced budget amendment and he's suggested federal spending may need to be cut by as much as 40 percent next year.
His message resonated with voters in this highly conservative state.
"I just hope that the whole Senate and, certainly Mike Lee, votes so that we get ourselves out of trouble with debt as a country so our children don't have so much of it," said 61-year-old Salt Lake City resident Paula S. Evershed. "I just hope he does almost everything Obama's done, the opposite of."
He also wants to amend the U.S. Constitution to limit senators and representatives to 12 years in office, although he says he won't give up his seat after two terms if the amendment fails.
He's also said he supports eliminating the 17th Amendment, which calls for the direct election of U.S. senators. Lee favors handing that decision to state lawmakers, which he says is more in line with what the Founding Fathers intended.
Lee, 39, 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. His brother Tom Lee is a Utah Supreme Court justice.
The legal scholar grew up in a family of lawyers who discussed the Constitution over dinners. He tells tales of attending Supreme Court hearings with his father when he was 10 years old and can cite articles and clauses in the Constitution from memory.