The far-right 912 Tea Party movement in Utah not only has become a nightmare for Republican incumbent Sen. Bob Bennett, it potentially could be a problem for GOP Gov. Gary Herbert as well.
Bennett's Waterloo could come as early as the Republican State Convention this May. Herbert's difficulties with the Tea Party types may unfold in the general election in November.
"We are a nonpartisan, nondenominational group concerned about the direction our country is going and willing to get involved to make a difference," said a leader of the Davis County 912 Tea Party Alliance. He did not want to be identified because he is working on several issues with Republican lawmakers and does not want to offend them.
But he says that talk among the group, comprised largely of followers of Glenn Beck and his 912 movement, indicates they are taking a good look at Salt Lake County mayor and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Peter Corroon as a possible alternative to Herbert.
The trigger for this potential break from a Republican Party that sees itself allied with the Tea Party movement was Herbert's signature on legislation increasing the tobacco tax. The one constant among Tea Party folks is opposition to tax increases.
"This doesn't mean we are in favor of tobacco products," he said. "Most of us are not. But it's the principle that has made this offensive."
He says tea partiers deplore the idea that one small group is being targeted for a tax increase for the benefit of everyone else, just because they are doing something that is legal but unpopular. "If the money from this tax went for programs to help people quit smoking or deal with the effects of smoking, that would be one thing. But this money is going into the general fund," he said.
He and his fellow 912ers see no difference between the tobacco tax and proposals in other states to tax bullets, soft drinks and junk food. The opposition to all of that fits right in with the "give-us-liberty" Patrick Henry movement that Republicans have so far adopted as their own.
The source says there are 600 e-mail addresses on the Davis County 912 Tea Party Alliance mailing list, but actual membership is over 1,000 because many members are joined by their spouses. Statewide, he estimates, the number of active members is more than 4,000. And many, according to comments in meetings and e-mails, share his sentiments on the governor's race.
"We are taking a closer look at Corroon," he said, "because he has a pretty strong record of fiscal conservatism." He pointed to the 20 percent reduction in Salt Lake County's budget and Corroon's opposition to his own party's tax increase proposals. "He finally agreed to a small tax increase when there just wasn't any other option."
The group also was impressed that Corroon stood against using taxpayer money to subsidize pro soccer in Sandy, while most Republican politicians supported it . "This doesn't mean we have decided to turn our backs on Herbert and support Corroon at this point," the source said. "It just means we think Corroon is worth looking at. We're not just automatic votes for the Republican."
The Tea Party folks were a force at the GOP caucuses last week and nearly all oppose Bennett. They decry Bennett's vote for the bank bailout and his co-sponsorship of the Wyden-Bennett health care reform bill.
One Republican official says reports from caucus chairs indicate as many as 75,000 participants statewide on Tuesday. The average attendance at the party's caucuses is about 35,000.
"It's because people are mad," he said. "They want to vote against somebody. "