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Washington • Sen. Mike Lee's chief of staff, Spencer Stokes, is returning to the lobbying world after serving two years as the Utah Republican's right-hand man in Washington.

Stokes, who previously lobbied in Utah, plans to return to the state and open a new shop, and Lee has tapped his state director, Boyd Matheson, to fill in as the office's top staffer while continuing his current role. Matheson will split his time between Washington and Utah.

"Two years is long enough to have helped get things started but isn't a permanent furniture fixture," Stokes said Tuesday, a day after he announced to staff he was departing.

It's the first big staff shake-up for Utah's freshman senator, though Lee and Stokes say their plan always contemplated a two-year stint.

"We see this as a natural continuation," the senator said.

Stokes helped shepherd Lee through his transition to office and guided his first two years of policy.

But Stokes also stirred controversy when he told Politico during Sen. Orrin Hatch's re-election bid that the senior senator's 36 years in the Senate was a negative for voters.

"I don't think anybody wants to lose or see someone lose," Stokes told the news outlet. "I don't want to see Senator Hatch hurt in that kind of way. ... I would rather have seen him go out on top and be regarded as the statesman he's been for the state of Utah."

But Hatch beat convention and primary opponents and went on to handily win a seventh term.

Lee said Tuesday that those comments had nothing to do with Stokes' exit, and Stokes says he continues to have friendships with Hatch's staff.

"I have a good relationship with Senator Hatch," Lee added.

Stokes said part of his motivation to leave stemmed from missed opportunities to see his family in Utah. He said he plans to keep an apartment in Washington but Senate rules prohibit him from lobbying Congress for one year.

"He's been a phenomenal chief of staff," Lee said. "He's done an amazing job getting my office up and running and that is no small task."

Lee also announced Tuesday the hiring of former Sen. Jim DeMint adviser Mike Connolly as Lee's new deputy chief of staff.

Stokes is expected to continue to run Lee's political operations, including his leadership political action committee and his campaign.