Utah Republican Senate primary could be a test for tea party

By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 22, 2010; 12:10 PM

As a test of the "tea party" movement's ability to galvanize voters for a single chosen candidate, Utah's GOP Senate primary Tuesday is likely to deliver a mixed message.

Republicans Tim Bridgewater and Mike Lee survived a bruising convention in May that knocked out incumbent Sen. Robert F. Bennett and gave the tea party and other conservative groups bragging rights as a dragon-slayer. Now, most of those groups -- but not all of them -- have rallied around Lee, a 38-year-old lawyer. But Bridgewater, 49, is even or ahead in several polls.

That underscores the tea party's challenge: converting the energy of its members into a well-organized electoral effort.

"There is some division in the overall tea party movement, but we said, look, 'Mike's clearly the best guy,' so we decided to roll the dice and work really hard," said Brendan Steinhauser, a spokesman for the national tea party organizer FreedomWorks. "I think we made a really big impact no matter what, win or lose."

FreedomWorks and Tea Party Express both endorsed Lee, as did former presidential contender Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) and South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint. In addition, FreedomWorks launched one of its biggest grass-roots mobilizing efforts to date. By the end of Tuesday, Steinhauser said his volunteers will have contacted one-third of the 100,000 Republican primary voters expected to cast ballots.

If that proves not to be enough, there are a number of possible reasons why. First, the leader of the Utah Tea Party, David Kirkham, endorsed Bridgewater, a businessman who, like Lee, has campaigned as a conservative, tea-party-friendly candidate. In fact, the main difference between the two candidates, according to Steinhauser, is that Bridgewater supported an expansion of Medicare prescription drug coverage as well as former president George W. Bush's school accountability initiative, No Child Left Behind.

Both candidates support repealing health-care reform, both advocate for increasing border security and both promise to reduce entitlement programs, earmark spending and taxes in general. (In addition, both graduated from Brigham Young University).

Another factor is that the fiscally conservative Club for Growth, which deserves much of the credit for taking out Bennett with a relentless TV campaign targeting his vote for the financial bailout, has stayed out of the primary altogether.

And yet another is the fact that Bennett, although not popular among the state's hard-core conservatives, endorsed Bridgewater -- a fact that could help him among the more moderate Republicans who vote in Tuesday's primary.

"Both of them are really quite sympathetic to the tea party movement," said Dave Hansen, chairman of the state Republican Party -- and that's good news for the movement, he said, in a state where winning the Republican nomination is tantamount to winning the election.

Hansen, who has stayed out of the race publicly, said the result will depend, like so many races, on turnout. Low turnout will help Lee, he said, while higher turnout will draw out a broader spectrum of Republicans, including Bennett loyalists more likely to vote for Bridgewater.

"I have to admit I've really gone back and forth on this one," Hansen said. "I really have no idea who's going to win."

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