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GOP infighting fierce even in Western strongholds like Utah and Idaho

By Charles Babington

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, Nov. 17 2013 12:18 a.m. MST

Senator Mike Lee, R-Utah, speaks during FreedomWorks' "Free the People," at the USANA Amphitheater in Salt Lake City, Saturday, July 6, 2013.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

MONTPELIER, Idaho — Republicans have made the Mountain West a stronghold, which is why brewing party brawls in Wyoming, Idaho and Utah are bedeviling loyalists who yearn for GOP unity.

Closely watched elections this month in Virginia and New Jersey did little to resolve the growing struggle between tea partyers and the Republican establishment. Now, some of the sharpest infighting is shifting to the rugged Big Sky region, where the tea party scored its first major victory, ousting a veteran Republican U.S. senator in a Utah party convention three years ago.

"We have to have this fight," said U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, an Idaho Republican facing a tea party challenger next May as he seeks a ninth House term. The struggle will continue well into the next presidential race, he said.

Simpson and three-term U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi from neighboring Wyoming are chief targets of tea party and anti-establishment groups that prize ideological purity above all, even if it leads to legislative defeats. It's not enough, these groups say, that both men hold top ratings from conservative organizations such as the National Rifle Association.

Republicans run little risk of losing congressional races to Democrats in Idaho, Wyoming and Utah. But if longtime incumbents such as Simpson and Enzi can fend off their GOP challengers next year, the results conceivably could lessen the tea party's zeal and reputation nationwide. That might encourage mainstream Republicans such as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie who are considering running for the White House in 2016.

On the other hand, a new string of tea party victories could ignite a full-blown Republican civil war and embolden anti-establishment champions such as U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.

All across the country, Republicans are watching to see where big donors, especially from the business world, will put their money and energy.

In Idaho, the Club for Growth is backing Simpson's challenger, lawyer Bryan Smith. The group helped topple GOP incumbents last year, including longtime U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, whose seat eventually fell to a Democrat.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which sometimes spars with the Club for Growth, has yet to say which candidates it will support. Simpson, however, was a featured speaker at a chamber event this month in Washington, D.C.

If nothing else, next year's congressional elections in the Rockies hold the potential for fierce, even nasty confrontations between elected Republicans and their challengers.

In Wyoming, "it's time for a new generation of leaders," says Liz Cheney, daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney. Her differences with Enzi, 69, seem largely stylistic and generational. She calls Barack Obama the "most radical" president ever. The soft-spoken Enzi rarely employs such bombast, even if he routinely opposes Obama's initiatives.

Cheney's decision to oppose Enzi has dismayed many prominent Republicans and opened painfully personal rifts. Her father is a hero to many Wyoming conservatives. But many other well-known Republicans, including U.S. Sen. John Barrasso and former U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson, have rallied to Enzi's side.

Enzi's supporters call Cheney, who lived for years in Virginia, a carpetbagger and opportunist. They gleefully point to her early missteps, including a late property tax payment and a $220 fine involving her application for a fishing license reserved for longtime state residents.

Cheney is airing a TV ad that calls her five children "fifth-generation Wyomingites."

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