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(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Doug Vowles holds up a sign as Senator Mike Lee meets with constituents at a townhall meeting in Spanish Fork, Wednesday August 21, 2013.
What’s Sen. Mike Lee up to? He’s just being Mike Lee

First Published Oct 27 2013 01:01 am • Last Updated Feb 14 2014 11:36 pm

On a stage normally reserved for rock stars, Sen. Mike Lee confidently predicted a historic shift that would result in a much smaller government and a much more conservative union.

"Call it the tea party movement, call it the constitutionally limited government movement, call it FreedomWorks, call it whatever you want," he said. "When we started the movement, they ignored us, then a short time later they laughed at us, now they are fighting us, and guess what comes next … we win."

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Lee uttered that twist on a famous quote from Mahatma Gandhi on July 5 at a FreedomWorks’ rally at West Valley City’s Usana Amphitheatre. But who was he referring to when he said, "they are fighting us?"

The answer explains why Lee, elected as Utah’s junior U.S. senator in 2010, has emerged as one of the nation’s most-polarizing political figures, a man treated like a celebrity by conservative activists, but one who is often criticized by fellow Republicans and vilified by Democrats.

"They" are just as likely to be major players in the Republican Party, such as John McCain, Orrin Hatch and Karl Rove, as they are to be leading Democrats like Barack Obama or Harry Reid.

That doesn’t mean Lee isn’t a team player, his team just isn’t the mainstream Republican Party.

From his first moments in Washington, he has eschewed the standard practice of wooing Senate colleagues to position himself for future rewards. Instead, he’s tried to forcibly drag the Republican Party toward his conservative vision, a tactic that has left him isolated within the Senate’s GOP caucus and frustrated major sectors of the Utah Republican Party. Polls show his popularity in the state has plummeted.

"He would say the enemy isn’t conservative versus liberal; it’s not necessarily Republican versus Democrat," said Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks, a tea party umbrella group. "It’s the insiders in Washington, D.C., who manipulate the process and game the system, and it’s the American people who pay the price for that."

Lee said much the same thing as he championed the political strategy that led to the first government shutdown in 17 years.

In July, after appearing on the Usana stage, Lee vowed to oppose any federal budget bill that funded the Affordable Care Act. While he made little headway in the Senate, he got House Republicans to adopt his plan. The stalemate resulted in a 16-day partial government shutdown that ended when Republicans capitulated to Obama’s demands to fund federal functions and avoid a default with no major Democratic concessions in return.

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Lee defends his stand as "a fight worth having, and it was no less worth fighting because the outcome was not certain victory." He and his allies blame its failure on the lack of unified Republican support.

Then again, it wasn’t there to begin with.

GOP infighting » Right from the start, Lee faced heavy criticism from leading party voices such as Sens. McCain, R-Ariz., and Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who said the strategy defied logic since Republicans didn’t have the votes to force Obama to undercut his signature health law.

The Republican Party has taken the lion’s share of blame for the shutdown — a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll found 63 percent of Americans disapproved of the GOP, a historic low. That has only fed the criticism leveled at Lee and his allies, including Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.

"He’s getting kicked around," said Spencer Stokes, Lee’s former Senate chief of staff. "This has been a really hard battle on him. You can only imagine the constant barrage you would take. He’s over interacting with his colleagues every day, and there are a fair amount of Democratic senators who are very irritated with him, and there are a fair amount of Republican senators who don’t like that they were put in this awkward position."

Lee told The Salt Lake Tribune he isn’t worried about the hard feelings, which still exist, dismissing them as a fight over tactics, not principles. He isn’t backing down either. It goes against the grain of a guy who expects ideological loyalty from his staff and has been known to call more moderate Republicans "squishes." He often reminds people that "ultimately, we don’t work for a party. We work for the people who elected us."

"Tension among and between Republican senators is natural, it’s unavoidable and it leads to meaningful and helpful dialogue," Lee said. "On the other hand, we have to remember that the lack of tension sometimes can lead to bad decisions."

He said Republicans have been too eager to work with Democrats in the past, producing a nation with $17 trillion in debt and a government he believes is far too large.

"It’s collusion even more than conflict that often presents the problem," he said.

Combative stances attacking conservatives who disagree with him have helped expand the rift in the Republican Party, both in Utah and in Washington, D.C. Traditional party power sources say following such an absolutist view, as Lee espouses, would lead to electoral ruin.

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