Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: Is Utah's junior senator facing a revolt in his home state?

Published: Sunday, Oct. 27 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

Columnists Pignanelli and Webb examine how events, people and trends of the past 12 months have influenced Utah politics.

Mike Terry, Deseret News

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Most Utahns are more interested in football and enjoying beautiful fall weather than they are about politics — but the political game also has intrigue as a spectator sport.

Last week, two of the nation's largest newspapers carried front-page stories about the political woes facing Sen. Mike Lee in Utah.

Is this just East Coast jabber or is Utah's junior senator facing a revolt in his home state?

Pignanelli: "If passion drives you, let reason hold the reins." — Benjamin Franklin

These articles were a shocker because several state leaders were quoted — openly — in their criticism of Sen. Lee. For a culture well-known for restraint and passive aggressive behavior, this is a big deal. Politicos contrast this with Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who returned to rallies of fawning Texans. Along with dropping approval ratings, these comments suggest Sen. Lee could be in jeopardy.

Although my moderate Republican and Democratic friends disagree, Sen. Lee's current dilemma is not a significant obstacle to garner the GOP nomination in 2016. The many objections to Sen. Lee are based upon tactics — but not his philosophy — and are easily forgiven. Sen. Lee is popular with right-wing base, and eventually grumpy mainstream Republicans will begin to appreciate his fight for the beliefs they share with him. Also, Sen. Lee possesses that concoction of personality traits that rarely co-exist together in the same person: ultraconservative principles, high intelligence and the ability to articulate positions. His smart move is to utilize assets in an "explanation campaign" and Cruz-like celebrations. But if Sen. Lee ignores the warning signs and does nothing, the real threat will not be a Republican, but from a moderate Democrat.

Webb: I believe most Utahns, myself included, support Sen. Mike Lee's goals and appreciate his commitment and sincerity. But as a political tactician he has failed badly, making it harder to end Obamacare and get the size and cost of the federal government under control. When your side controls only one-half of one-third of the government, you can't win by brute force, but you can play smart defense and attempt to position your party to take control of the U.S. Senate and the presidency in future elections.

By mounting the impossible crusade to defund Obamacare even if it meant shutting down the government and not paying the nation's bills, Lee threw a political temper tantrum that hurt Republican credibility and election prospects. It was not appreciated by mainstream Utah political, business and community leaders. Lee has plenty of time to mend fences before his 2016 re-election, but Utah leaders are going to want to see more pragmatism and smarter strategy or they will seek alternatives.

The civil war in the national Republican Party is a hot topic in the media. Will this spill over into Utah elections?

Pignanelli: For years, politicos described Republicans as the "Daddy party" and Democrats as the "Mommy party." No more. The national GOP is better labeled as the "crying little girl party." During the government closure escapade, Democrats were united and the GOP was deeply divided. As an American, I am embarrassed to witness the petty bickering among Party of Lincoln. If this continues through 2014, Utahns will be disgusted and open to alternatives when voting in a variety of offices.

Webb: I celebrate the 2010 tea party revolt that resulted in GOP control of the U.S. House of Representatives. It was much needed and has thankfully changed the national political agenda, putting a brake on the ultra-liberal Obama agenda and focusing much-needed attention on conservative values, debt and deficits. But while zealots are great at revolution, they're not so good at governing, where pragmatism and compromise are sorely needed. Utah doesn't suffer Washington's gridlock and dysfunction, but the civil war certainly rages here. Utah's "establishment" (those leaders who have made Utah the great state it is) has grown tired of far-right domination of the election process. They want to ensure mainstream candidates have a fair shot at being nominated.

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