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Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: Does the tea party have a real future in Utah politics?

Published: Sunday, May 20 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

Senator Orrin Hatch speaks to the media about Dan Liljenquist narrowly forcing him into a primary election at the Utah Republican Party 2012 Nominating Convention at the South Towne Exposition Center in Sandy on Saturday, April 21, 2012.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

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The defeat of long-serving, well-respected Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana again raises questions about the power and influence of the tea party across the country — and in Utah.

Will the success of national tea party activists in Indiana impact the U.S. Senate GOP primary between Orrin Hatch and Dan Liljenquist? What about the general election?

Pignanelli: "A democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where fifty-one percent of the people may take away the rights of the other forty-nine." — South Bay tea party Right-wingers bagged a huge trophy with Lugar's political carcass. Immediately after the election there was much chest thumping that Hatch was next on their hit list despite the fact they couldn't take him out in convention. However, the only major tea party organization still messing in Utah is Freedomworks (which Hatch has successfully emasculated in the state). The movement is now focused on promoting Ted Cruz in the Texas U.S. Senate May 29 GOP primary — who is trailing Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.

The relationship between mainstream Republicans and the tea party is similar to the dynamic when you are forced to invite an obnoxious in-law/neighbor/coworker to a dinner party to smooth affairs inside your family/neighborhood/workplace. Initially you tolerate their presence as you believe it is for the common good, but eventually the loathsome antics wear thin and you kick them out of the house. Some Republicans are grateful for the alleged revitalization these enthusiasts infused to the GOP, but they have overstayed their welcome.

Liljenquist continues to campaign with vigor, and the Utah GOP primary will be a lively contest — without significant national tea party presence.

Webb: Hatch remains the clear favorite to win the primary and it's unlikely Liljenquist has the time and resources to pull off what would, indeed, be an enormous upset. But if Liljenquist did win, it would have little to do with the tea party. He would win because he convinced mainstream Republican voters that he is the best person to go to Washington, represent Utah's interests and work to solve the country's enormous problems.

The tea party is currently a liability for Liljenquist, not an asset. The tea party arguments that Hatch isn't conservative enough, isn't holding to constitutional principles, is too friendly with Democrats, etc., won't work with mainstream Republicans who want a problem-solver in Washington, not an ideologue.

Liljenquist remains a rising star, and he can have a bright political future, but it's not with the tea party. My sense is that Liljenquist, in his heart, is more comfortable as a fiscally conservative mainstream Republican, not a tea party ideologue.

The power of the tea party was diminished at the county and state conventions because of the enormous caucus turnout and election of more mainstream party delegates. What are the long-term prospects for the Utah tea party — can it return to power?

Pignanelli: Many tea party activists are cold fish who lack the gregariousness of Carl Wimmer, the charisma of Mia Love or the raw intelligence of Mike Lee. As with left-wing extremists, their unusual personalities and fetish for endless ideological litmus tests guarantees limited influence in primaries and general elections. Their only hope is for mainstream Utahns to avoid the 2014 precinct caucuses, and they can once again flourish at conventions.

Webb: This year's party caucuses changed the dynamics of politics in Utah. The mainstream is firmly back in charge. I do appreciate the tea party and the far right. It's important to have a watchdog group frequently reminding us about the importance of limited government, low taxes and constitutional principles. But I don't want hard-core ideologues on either the left or the right to dominate Utah politics and dictate public policy. It is solid, mainstream Republican and Democratic governors, state legislators, members of Congress, and city and county leaders who have built Utah into what it is today, including our exceptional public infrastructure, facilities, services and institutions. We need small government and low taxes, but government has an important role to play in society and we need leaders who understand that.

A number of conservative stalwarts lost in the recent conventions. Will any of them rise again and become significant players in Utah politics?

Pignanelli: Most of the charter members of the conservative Patrick Henry Caucus will not be returning to the Utah Legislature — a great soapbox for any activist seeking attention. The lawmakers in the 2013 session will fill this void. Thus, one or two former right-wing leaders may someday return to elected office, but history suggests that others will be the face of conservative action.

Webb: Certainly, losing an election need not be the end of a political career. Numerous examples exist, both in Utah and nationally, of politicians rising from defeat to major future victories. Politicians often learn more from losing than from winning, especially the lesson of not fighting the last war. Many candidates expected 2012 to be like 2010, and they campaigned accordingly — and lost.

David Clark, Steve Sandstrom, Pete Ashdown, Carl Wimmer, Chris Herrod, Morgan Philpot, Ken Sumsion, Jason Buck, Ross Romero and others are all young and talented enough to recover. Rejection hurts, but some of them will pick themselves up, dust off the disappointment, patch up the political bruises and make a comeback. Plenty of time exists for an encore.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Previously he was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and Deseret News managing editor. Email: lwebb@exoro.com. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Pignanelli served 10 years in the Utah House of Representatives, six years as minority leader. His spouse, D'Arcy Dixon Pignanelli, is a state tax commissioner. Email: frankp@xmission.com.

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