Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: Is Utah tea party really stronger than Republicans?

Published: Sunday, April 10 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

Tea partier David Kirkham has been flexing his political muscles lately, boasting that the Utah tea party is more influential than the Republican Party, and hinting that the tea party may defeat a "very weak" Gov. Gary Herbert. Such talk, along with tea party attempts to influence legislative action, has the political community abuzz with speculation about tea party clout — whether political tsunami or paper tiger.

Is the tea party really more influential than the Republican Party, and is it powerful enough to knock off a sitting governor?

Webb: It would be insane for the tea party to try to defeat Herbert, the most conservative Utah governor in 46 years. Herbert has been a principle-based conservative his entire political life, although he's smart enough to be a practical problem-solver, not a right-wing ideologue paralyzed by narrow dogma.

In other words, Herbert is a mainstream conservative, just like the vast majority of Utahns who elected him in a landslide.

A backlash against the tea party is building among conservative legislators and other leaders who are tired of threats and intimidation over one or two votes that are litmus tests for the far right.

It is a sign of political na?ete to attack someone you agree with 90 percent of the time. Some on the far right would burn down the house because they don't like the paint in the bathroom. A number of strong conservatives are being attacked for voting for HB116, the guest worker immigration reform bill, even though a large percentage of Utahns support the legislation.

As a mainstream conservative, I agree with most of what the tea party stands for. I'm all for limited government, low taxes, and restoration of balance in the federal system. But I also believe our political discourse ought to be civil, and that compromise is sometimes necessary, with all parties working together, to solve problems.

Tea partiers caught a wave of anger and frustration in 2010. But if they are not careful, they will find themselves marginalized as a small faction of angry rabble-rousers.

One place small, but committed, activist groups do have clout is in party caucuses. Thus, mainstream Republicans, by far the majority, must get involved, attend caucuses and not allow small fringe groups to control Utah politics. It's time for the mainstream conservative majority to assert control of the party.

The biggest threat to Republican dominance in Utah is the prospect of extremist candidates being nominated, who then are defeated in the general election by moderate Democrats.

Pignanelli: "Republicans are trying to ride this tiger but if you 'Ride the Tiger,' you better be able to satisfy it, or the Tiger will eat you if you fail." — BloggyBayou (a conservative tea party blogger). After enduring two years of Republicans fawning over tea party activists ("They revived our party", "they are the soul of the American Revolution" etc., ad naseum), I am amused and vindicated. After 2008, the tea party was useful when the GOP needed their passion. But the price was expensive — the integration of extremists into party operations. Incumbents that do not satisfy these purists could lose key support. Instead of building from the center, Republicans relied on the fringe.

Democrats are suffering from the same mistake. Left-wing special interest groups (i.e. MoveOn.org) provided the enthusiasm to deliver astounding victories in 2006 and 2008. The pricetag for Democrats was also high: the election results of 2010 (and quite possibly 2012).

Because of Utah's bizarre delegate/convention system, the tea party threat to Gov. Herbert is very real. This analysis is based on three compelling reasons: 1) Bob Bennett; 2) Bob Bennett and don't forget 3) Bob Bennett. In 2010, national and state tea party forces thrashed this well-financed and popular incumbent.

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