SALT LAKE CITY — When Mike Lee toppled longtime Republican Sen. Robert F. Bennett here in 2010, it was the tea party’s first big triumph. But now, after a 16-day government shutdown, it’s Lee who faces a revolt within his own party.
Utah, one of the most Republican states in the nation, has a long tradition of being represented by pragmatic, business-minded conservatives in the U.S. Senate. Lee broke that pattern by governing as an ideological firebrand — standing alongside Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) in the push for a shutdown in a failed bid to undermine President Obama’s health-care law.
As a result, Lee’s approval ratings in Utah have cratered, and prominent Republicans and local business executives are openly discussing the possibility of mounting a primary challenge against him. Top Republicans 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.
To hear grievances with Lee’s no-compromise, no-apology governing style, just head to the executive floor of Zions Bank, founded by Mormon settler Brigham Young. Bank President A. Scott Anderson, who raised money for Lee three years ago, sat in his corner office this week harboring second thoughts.
“I think people admire him for sticking to his guns and principles, but I think there are growing frustrations,” Anderson said. “If things are to happen, you can’t just stick to your principles. You have to make things work. . . . You’ve got to be practical.”
Spencer Zwick, a Utah native and national finance chairman for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, was more direct, calling Lee a “show horse” who “just wants to be a spectacle.”
“Business leaders that I talk to, many of whom supported him, would never support his reelection and in fact will work against him, myself included,” Zwick said.
If Lee is worried, he isn’t showing it. The freshman senator strongly defended the strategy of demanding that Democrats agree to defund the new health-care law, commonly known as Obamacare, or see the government shut down.
“This fight was worth fighting,” said Lee, 42, a lawyer whose father served as U.S. solicitor general during the Reagan administration. “The country wasn’t built by fighting only those battles where victory was certain.”
This battle has taken a toll on his popularity, however. A Brigham Young University survey conducted during the shutdown found that 57 percent of Utahans wanted Lee to be more willing to compromise. The senator’s approval rating dropped to 40 percent — down from 50 percent in June — with 51 percent disapproving.
At the same time, the online poll found, the vast majority of Utah residents identifying with the tea party still backed Lee.
Lee waved off the findings. “The only number I worry about is how many people are being hurt by Obamacare,” he said.
But Lee acknowledged that voters disapproved of the shutdown — especially in Utah, where the federal government is the largest employer. Shuttered national parks hurt the tourism industry and thousands of workers at military installations were furloughed.
“I understand that people in Utah — and people in America, for that matter — don’t like fighting in Washington,” Lee said. “But if we don’t have these fights, nothing changes.”
Lee came to office as part of the 2010 tea party wave, benefiting from Utah’s unique nomination system in which delegates chosen at neighborhood caucuses pick the party’s candidates at a state convention rather than in a primary.
Establishment figures in Utah have long loathed the convention system and are launching a well-funded effort to change it. A bipartisan group including former governor Michael O. Leavitt (R), a George W. Bush Cabinet official and close Romney adviser, has launched Count My Vote, a ballot initiative to overhaul Utah’s nominating process. The group has raised more than $500,000, most from major GOP donors.
A shift to an open primary could hurt Lee, who supports the convention system because his most passionate supporters are the conservative activists who become delegates. Rich McKeown, a longtime Leavitt aide and chairman of the effort, insisted that Count My Vote is designed not to target the senator, but rather to enlarge the voting population over the long term.
One beneficiary could be Thomas Wright, who stepped down this spring as chairman of the Utah Republican Party. Wright said he is considering running against Lee in 2016 because he has grown “exasperated” with the junior senator’s governing style.
“We can’t keep going on like this,” Wright said. “I want to work with people to get things done. I want to go be a leader and build bridges, not burn them down.”
Former state senator Dan Liljenquist and Josh Romney, one of Mitt’s sons, have also been mentioned as possible challengers, Utah Republicans say. Liljenquist enjoyed tea party backing when he ran unsuccessfully against Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R) in last year’s primary.
Liljenquist criticized Lee’s handling of the shutdown. “I’m struggling to see what was gained from it for Utah,” he said. “An all-or-nothing approach makes people uncomfortable here.”
Although Cruz attracts more attention, Lee is one of the main intellectual forces behind the tea party in Washington. His Utah supporters say they’re proud that he is uncompromising.
“He’s done everything he said he was going to do — one of the rare politicians, I might add, who has kept all of his promises,” said David Kirkham, a tea party organizer who unsuccessfully challenged Utah Gov. Gary R. Herbert (R) last year.
But Lee has not cultivated the party’s business and establishment wings. Consider John Price, a businessman who once sat on the Republican National Committee and later served in Africa as an ambassador under Bush.
“With Mike Lee, no matter how many times I see him, he still doesn’t know who I am,” Price said. “He treats me like I don’t exist.”
Former Republican governor Jon Huntsman Jr., a 2012 presidential candidate who once employed Lee as counsel in the governor’s office, said Lee has bucked a trend of senators who work to grow this small state in a way that makes people proud.
“You don’t have ideological wack-jobs,” Huntsman said. “For all of its labeling as a red state, underneath it all Utah is a pretty pragmatic Western state, a just-get-it-done ethos.”
Many business leaders here said they wish Lee were more like Hatch, a conservative with a penchant for working across the aisle. In a statement, Hatch said the two “might not always agree,” but he did not criticize Lee. “There’s a unity of purpose amongst all Republicans that Obamacare is a dog of a law,” Hatch said.
In the budget debate, Lee championed repealing a medical-device tax that is part of the health-care law. So, one might imagine the senator would find support at Merit Medical, an international device manufacturer based in the Salt Lake City suburb of West Jordan.
In an interview at Merit’s headquarters, chief executive Fred Lampropoulos called the tax “egregious” and “unfair.” But he also said Lee’s crusade went too far.
“I’m an Army officer and I’m a businessman,” said Lampropoulos, a major GOP fundraiser. “Tactics and strategy are very important. You’ve got to pick your fights.”
Asked whether he would back Lee’s reelection, Lampropoulos leaned back in his leather chair and sat silent for about 20 seconds. “He has to convince me to vote for him again,” he said.