If the tea party is akin to a steadily surging forest fire, then FreedomWorks is the tireless wind fanning the flames.

FreedomWorks is a powerful political action committee fueled by tea-party interests and chaired by former U.S. House Majority Leader Dick Armey. The conservative group has more than a million members and 40,000 donors; its website defines its purpose as "leading the fight for lower taxes, less government, and more freedom." Two months ago the Washington Post reported that the two-fold goal of FreedomWorks is "to keep activists engaged enough to enter 2012 with a grass-roots network at least as strong as the one that played so dramatic a role last year; and to use that network right now to push newly elected conservatives to accomplish something while in power."

But for all its sound and fury, FreedomWorks is still very much a work in progress because at times it's hard to define the fine line separating politicians the group endorses from those whom it opposes. Nowhere is that reality more apparent than in Utah, where FreedomWorks absolutely adores one senator and is seeking to fire the other despite the fact that Sens. Mike Lee and Orrin Hatch vote the same way three-fourths of the time.

In 2009, Lee visited FreedomWorks' office in Washington, D.C., to introduce himself a couple months before officially declaring his candidacy for U.S. Senate. By February 2010, FreedomWorks endorsed Lee's candidacy, and the group's support helped Lee narrowly best Tim Bridgewater in a 2010 Republican primary. Federal campaign disclosures show FreedomWorks ultimately gave $13,288 to Team Lee.

These days, Lee's cachet with FreedomWorks couldn't be higher. The PAC's federal and state campaigns director, Brendan Steinhauser, told the Deseret News, "Lee is the real deal and he's definitely my favorite senator." On the FreedomWorks website, Lee is the only elected official with a written testimonial extolling the PAC's virtues.

"I was driving past various voting locations on Election Day and saw all these FreedomWorks signs with my name on it," Lee wrote. "And I just, well, almost teared up. God bless FreedomWorks."

For Lee, the marriage of his political ideology to the FreedomWorks mission felt like a match made in tea-party heaven.

"FreedomWorks is all about the same things that prompted me to run for the U.S. Senate and that same principle which motivates my every policy decision here, which is the idea that freedom isn't free," Lee said during a recent phone call. "Freedom is something we have to look out for and protect; freedom is something that is fundamentally at odds with government action.

"Every time government acts, it does so at the expense of individual liberty. Now that doesn't mean that all government action is bad — it just means we have to weigh carefully the value of increased government action against the incremental erosion of individual liberty."

Unlike Lee, however, Hatch is at serious loggerheads with FreedomWorks. Looking ahead to the 2012 election when Hatch will run for a seventh term in the senate, the PAC is already holding rallies for its "Retire Orrin Hatch" campaign that's been more than a year in the making.

"When I was there on the (Utah Republican) convention floor (in 2010), when Bennett went down I remember talking to (Utah Tea Party founder) David Kirkham and some of the other activists," Steinhauser said. "Even then they said, 'Hatch is next.' FreedomWorks was invited back into that effort right after Bennett went down; that movement has been going since basically that day.

"We looked at Hatch's record over the last 30-something years, and we built a case against Orrin Hatch that we've been handing out to activists and media."

When the Deseret News recently asked the Beehive State's senior senator for his opinion about FreedomWorks and its "Retire Hatch" mantra, the annoyance in Hatch's voice was plainly palpable.

"Well I don't feel good about it," Hatch said. "I think it's ridiculous, but nevertheless, that's the way they are. Frankly, I'm not going to pay too much attention to them. I understand they're nasty — they can be very nasty — and that's not what Utah politics is all about."

Hatch remains unbowed in the face of the FreedomWorks threat to his re-election hopes — and perhaps with good reason. For one thing, Team Hatch announced Thursday that, on the heels of raising $1.3 million from April through June, it has more than $3.4 million in its campaign war chest. Additionally, FreedomWorks isn't the only right-leaning group trying to take down Hatch; Club for Growth released ads in Utah this week attacking the senator for his role in increased government spending over the years.

Lee and Hatch have voted the same way on 69 of the Senate's 93 votes (74.2 percent) this year, and yet FreedomWorks indisputably radiates polar-opposite opinions of Utah's two senators. Hatch's annoyance morphed into shoulder-shrugging bewilderment as he tried to offer context for that apparent disconnect.

"Mike and I vote a lot alike because we think a lot alike," Hatch said. "I've never worried about how my colleague in Utah is going to vote. … But for some reason they pick five to 10 votes and then criticize you for that. But my gosh — I've voted over 12,000 times, almost 12,500 times. I'm one of the most voted senators in the history of the Senate. It'd be pretty shocking if you couldn't find a few votes you disagreed with — in fact, I disagree with a few of them myself as I look back in time."

EMAIL: jaskar@desnews.com, twitter: askargo