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What’s Sen. Mike Lee up to? He’s just being Mike Lee

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"You have to decide if you would rather achieve short-term victories on your way to a larger goal or fall on your sword every time," said Brian J. Walsh, a former National Republican Senatorial Committee strategist.

"There are many states in this country that are not nearly as red as a state like Utah or a state like South Carolina. For Republicans to win the White House in 2016, you need a coalition," Walsh said.

At a glance

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Monday at 12:15 p.m. » Jennifer Napier-Pearce talks with Mike Lee’s former chief of staff, Spencer Stokes, conservative blogger Holly Richardson and Tribune Washington correspondents Matt Canham and Thomas Burr about what motivates Utah’s junior senator and what the recent debacle will mean for Lee’s political future. Join the discussion at sltrib.com.

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The national Republican Party didn’t help elect Lee. He came to power with assistance from far more conservative outside groups such as the Senate Conservatives Fund, FreedomWorks and Club for Growth. Their ideological union has been absolute.

Not once has Lee disagreed with FreedomWorks on a vote included in its annual scorecards. Neither has Cruz. No other senator can say that.

No senator has higher marks with Heritage Action in the past three years, a group now led by former Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., who used to be the brainpower behind the Senate Conservatives Fund.

"[Lee’s] not going to have a big piece of landmark legislation with his name on it during this administration," DeMint said in an interview. "But Mike has been essential in showing people around the country that there are some people in Washington that are standing up for the things they believe in."

Kibbe, of FreedomWorks, said Lee has found his fight a little lonely, discovering his fellow conservatives don’t have his back. "He is trying to figure out how to move the dino­saurs in Washington to actually solve problems."

Growing frustration » In deep red Utah, there’s growing frustration that Lee has put ideology above practical governing, a criticism coming from two state senators — one Democrat and one Republican.

State Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, who is also the state Democratic Party chairman, said, while he normally disagrees with Hatch and former Sen. Bob Bennett, "I never had any second thoughts on where their heart was. It was in serving the people of Utah. I don’t think that is true of Mike Lee. He’s there to serve his tea party ideology."

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Said state Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross: "The shutdown was the culmination of the fact that Mike Lee is more interested in representing the tea party than the good people of the state of Utah."

Lee rebuffs such claims, saying he was elected in a statewide contest and had persistently explained he would take a more combative approach to Washington.

"The people of Utah elected me, and I’m doing exactly what I told the people of Utah I would do when I ran," he said, "so I am, by definition, representing their interests."

Lee noted that Weiler was among state lawmakers who approved a resolution asking Utah’s congressional delegation to use "all means possible" to combat Obamacare.

Weiler, who met Lee when they were law students at Brigham Young University, didn’t support his friend in the 2010 party primary, partly because of Lee’s rigid rhetoric.

"I respect his political ideology," the GOP state senator said, "but at some point there has to be a dose of reality."

And Weiler was among those who simply didn’t believe Lee was as conservative as he portrayed himself to be.

"There was lots of thought that he was using the tea party as a vehicle to get elected and once he got in there, he would moderate," Weiler said. "Instead, he has doubled down on the far right side of things."

Election mandate » Stokes, a lobbyist who splits his time between Utah and Washington, often hears criticism similar to Weiler’s from the state’s political elite — officeholders, donors, operatives.

"I don’t go anywhere where I don’t get asked the Mike Lee question," he said. "I get asked what he’s doing? Will he be able to get re-elected? People talk about who is running against him. I always start by chuckling because I ask people, ‘What did you think Mike Lee was going to do?’ "

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