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.