Sen. Orrin Hatch, Mitt Romney, Jon Huntsman Jr. feel tea party heat in Utah
A spokeswoman for Romney declined to comment about tea party criticism in Utah. A person close to Huntsman, who announced his resignation as U.S. ambassador to China in January, said he was not commenting on his future until he returned from China.
What amplifies the tea party's role is that Utah, more than perhaps any other state, is dominated by the Republican Party. No Democrat has won statewide office here since a two-term attorney general in the 1990s. That means tea party activists do not need to think much, or talk much, about the Democrats, who can largely be dismissed as irrelevant; they can thus concentrate fully on remaking the Republican Party from within, by shaping it and handpicking candidates.
The prospect of two Mormon candidates for president and a bruising Senate fight could give those home-grown views an even louder voice, said the Republican Party's state chairman, Thomas E. Wright. "Every Utahan's voice is going to be heard across the nation," Wright said.
Some longtime political observers here see in the tea party's rise an echo of the historic realignment in the mid-1970s when Hatch first rose to power and Republicans consolidated their grip.
"Before 1975, the pendulum swung back and forth in Utah between Democrats and Republicans," said Thomas G. Alexander, a retired professor of Utah history at Brigham Young University.
Hatch's victory in 1976 over a Democratic senator, Frank E. Moss, was the trumpet herald of party dominance, Alexander said. Now, paradoxically, a new chapter in the book Hatch helped write could pose a threat to him.
"What happened in the election in 2010 shows that they have inordinate power in the Republican Party to shift the party further to the right," Alexander said, referring to the tea party groups.
Some Republicans believe tea party invincibility has been overstated. A tea party-backed candidate, Morgan Philpot, failed last year to unseat Utah's only Democratic congressman, Jim Matheson. The state's presidential primary also comes late in the campaign season, which means that momentum and delegate counts from earlier states will already be in the bag, or not, for the candidates, by the time they get here.
And Hatch, others pointedly say, is not Bennett.
"People are seriously underestimating Hatch," said Michael Swenson, a businessman and tea party leader in Utah County, a conservative stronghold south of Salt Lake City.
Swenson said he thought that Hatch's experience and financial war chest could make for a bitter, divisive fight within the party.
In a state where politics, religion and culture are so intertwined, that fight itself could have huge repercussions. The traditional links — that a good Mormon is a good conservative — has been broken, many Mormon tea party members say.
"My mother says, 'If he's a bishop, he must be a good Republican,'" said Susan Southwick, state coordinator for a group called Utah Patriots. "I say, 'Do your homework.'"
Southwick said that she believed that the tea party revolt — she personally does not see much chance of her supporting Hatch, Huntsman or Romney — has created a healthy tension among Mormons who will be forced to look deeper into a candidate's views.
Here in Coalville, Smith said the question she was wrestling with, especially in the Senate race, was over substance: Has Hatch really changed or is he simply saying what his audience wants to hear.
"I think Hatch has opened his eyes," she said. "Do I believe he's sincere? I don't know."
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