Mike Lee wasn’t the consensus choice of Utah Republicans. A creature of the conservative legal movement, Lee was a political novice with limited support among the party establishment when he challenged long-time incumbent senator for the Republican Senate nomination. He edged out Bennett and former congressional candidate Tim Bridgewater in the first ballot of the state Republican convention, but lost on the second and third ballots to the latter, first by a slight margin of 1.43 points, and then by a large one of nearly 15 points.
With almost 43 percent of the vote among convention goers, however, he was eligible for the final primary ballot, which he won with 51.2 percent of the vote on the strength of his Tea Party supporters. And since Utah voters weren’t going to elect a Democrat to replace Bennett in the Senate, Lee had an easy path to victory.
But Utah isn’t South Carolina (home to former senator Jim DeMint) or Texas (stomping ground for Tea Party terror Ted Cruz); voters are strongly conservative, but—unlike their fellow travelers in the South—they aren’t fire-breathing radicals. They prefer calm, reasonable-sounding politicians like Jon Huntsman, Orrin Hatch, and—yes—Bill Bennett. Lee is a baby-faced, soft-spoken man, but his politics are far more obstructionist and right-wing than his predecessor, who was at least willing to work with President Obama.
Which is why his decision to join Senator Ted Cruz in the crusade to nullify the Affordable Care Act has played so poorly back home. In the editorial page of the Salt Lake Tribune—flagship paper of a city that gave the majority of its votes to Lee in 2010—voters voiced their frustration and anger at Lee’s antics. “The obstructionists solve nothing and make a mockery of the process by which laws are passed and take effect,” wrote one angry Utahan. “Too bad we don’t have a lemon law in place which would allow us to ‘repeal and replace’ him,” wrote another.
Likewise, the editorial board of the Deseret News—also in Salt Lake City—was critical of the shutdown, and has eagerly touted survey data showing a “centrist populace.” In a poll conducted earlier this month, 56 percent of Utahans said it wasn’t worth shutting down the government as part of the effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Fifty-seven percent said Lee should be more willing to compromise, and his approval rating has dipped below 50 percent. And according to a recent story from the Washington Post, there’s now a movement among Utah Republicans to alter party rules in an attempt to block his re-nomination. “Top Republicans,” note the Post, “are also maneuvering to redesign the party’s nomination system in a way that would likely make it more difficult for Lee to win reelection in 2016.”
Cruz may have won over conservative Texans with his antics, but Lee has created a whole new set of enemies among the GOP establishment in Utah. The simple fact is that, outside of the South and a few other areas, Tea Party extremism and brinksmanship is deeply unpopular. But the internal incentives of the national Republican Party make it difficult for mainstream conservatives to stand against the suicide charge of a small minority.
With that said, the Lee example offers a glimmer of hope for those who want a more rational GOP that sees government as an opportunity, and not as a problem. If opposition to Lee holds through the next three years, he could lose his seat to a more moderate challenger. Couple that with Ken Cuccinelli’s likely failure in Virginia, Chris Christie’s success in New Jersey, and the potential failure of congressional Republicans in 2014, and you have the potential for a counter-movement in the Republican Party, as conservatives come to see winning as more important than ideological purity.