Sen. Mike Lee infuriated Utah's Republican Party establishment in 2010 when he defeated incumbent GOP Sen. Robert Bennett's bid for a fourth term. Bennett's defeat marked the first time in 70 years that a Utah party dumped an incumbent, the Deseret News reported
at the time.
Bennett's defeat came when he finished a distant third in the voting at the state Republican convention that year. Lee cruised to victory in the fall, and he has become a favorite of the tea party and other grassroots conservatives across the country. Among other things, they appreciate Lee's willingness to stand with lawmakers like Texas Sen. Ted Cruz on hot-botton issues such illegal immigration and defunding Obamacare – even if that results in a temporary government shutdown.
Lee has come under heavy fire from powerful forces within Utah's Republican establishment who appear determined to make him the first incumbent tea party senator to be defeated for re-election by the GOP establishment, Politico reported Monday
Lee has made significant headway in allaying concerns from some Utah Republican establishment quarters, the website reports. When asked the situation, he says: "I think I'm going to be okay."
But even so, some powerful members of the establishment like Jon Huntsman Sr. – founder of the giant petrochemical firm that bears his name – appear to have made up their mind that Lee is the enemy.
Huntsman, who calls Lee's positions "extremely radical," is considering a large-scale effort to support a primary challenger against the senator and refuses to meet with him in person.
Scott Anderson, a prominent bank president in Salt Lake City, has privately commissioned polls on the Senate race and has met with some of Lee's prospective opponents to see if they are interested in running.
Former state GOP Chairman Thomas Wright is actively considering a bid against the Utah freshman, while others in the business world are keeping the door open about running.
"All I can say is Mike Lee is an embarrassment to the state of Utah," Huntsman said. He called Lee "an extremist" for his role in last year's government shutdown fight, blaming the battle for costing his cancer research institute millions in federal dollars and hurting small businesses affected by the closure of national parks.
Huntsman said Lee "has been a tremendous embarrassment to our family, to our state, to our country to have him as a U.S. senator."
Many in Utah strongly disagree with Huntsman. Over the past year, Lee's poll numbers have been going up, and he has aggressively courted the business community in Salt Lake City
"For now, Lee has reasons to be confident. He has a deeply enthusiastic base of thousands of conservative activists who dominate the party’s nominating convention, though prospective changes in the primary process could lessen their influence," according to Politico. "Conservative groups like the Senate Conservatives Fund and Club for Growth are backing him, as is the main GOP establishment group, the National Republican Senatorial Committee."
If you believe the United States "is headed in the right direction, you probably are never going to be an enthusiastic supporter of Sen. Lee," said Bud Scruggs, the senator's campaign chairman. "If you believe it’s headed in the wrong direction, then you need leadership in Washington, D.C., that has real reforms and real changes in mind.”
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