He blamed his slow fundraising on the ongoing presidential contest and said he plans to be more aggressive in the months to come.
It's not unusual for new senators to raise money at a slow pace, but it is rare for them to be in the red, said Jennifer Duffy, who tracks Senate races for the Cook Political Report.
"The object in off-years is to hoard your money," she said. "If he had $200,000 to $250,000 on hand that would be about right."
Of the seven new senators in 2008, for example, three spent more than they raised, but none ended their first year in the hole, according to the most recent complete information available from the Center for Responsive Politics.
Lee only raised $23,000 in the last three months of 2011 and that left his campaign committee $20,000 short, owing money to its attorney, accountant, two consultants and the senator himself. The committee still needs to pay Lee $3,200 to close out a loan he gave his campaign in 2010.
For all of 2011, Lee raised $360,000 but spent $493,000.
The numbers come from the senator's year-end campaign finance disclosure, which The Salt Lake Tribune obtained from the Senate's public records office Tuesday.
Although members of the House filed these reports electronically on Jan. 31, senators are allowed to file paper copies, so the information was not readily available. Lee's team had provided copies to the news media on the filing deadline throughout his 2010 race and the first three quarters of last year.
Lee's paltry fundraising quarter coincided with the departure of Dan Hauser, the man who ran Lee's campaign account and his two political action committees, which raised a combined $56,800 and ended the year with $19,000 in available funds. Hauser has taken a position with Carl Wimmer's campaign in Utah's 4th Congressional District.
Lee has endorsed Wimmer and he said Hauser's decision to move on was unrelated to his fundraising.
"Dan Hauser was with me for two years, and he gave two years of very valiant service," Lee said.
The new senator not only has campaign debt, but he is also the only member of Utah's federal delegation who has personal debt. In a disclosure filed last May, Lee noted that beyond his student loans he has $15,000 in credit card debt and a line of credit worth somewhere between $50,000 and $100,000.
Lee rejected any comparison between his personal finances or that of his campaign and his support for a balanced budget amendment, which would force Congress to spend only as much money as the government takes in.
"That is apples and oranges," Lee said. "That is not even remotely the same thing."