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



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He dismissed the criticism, saying it’s just Utahns’ passive aggressiveness. "We in Utah don’t like confrontation."

Lee’s former state director, Dan Hauser, has taken to Twitter and Facebook to do just that, confronting critics such as Weiler, calling them "political opportunists" who are "piling onto the senator because other Republicans in Washington, D.C., torpedoed his strategy."

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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Hauser did say Lee could have improved his communication with "thought leaders" in Utah, while Lee said he "made every effort to" reach out to people in the state. That included a town hall tour of rural Utah, where night after night he was greeted with standing-room-only crowds of ardent supporters who cheered him on for fighting — even if victory was unlikely.

For some regular voters, Lee’s anti-establishment efforts are what’s needed.

"When you go to Washington, you think you’re going to do good things, but you end up falling in line with the old guys who have been there for a long time — half their lives — and know the situation and how to work it. Lee hasn’t," said Zelma Jeppsen of Mantua, an independent voter who supported Lee in 2010.

Michelle L. King of the Cache Valley Tea Party remains a major supporter of Lee, particularly the senator’s skepticism toward government surveillance programs. She argues Lee deserves more time.

"I always expected it would be a long road. I knew he would not have a lot of help in the Senate," she said. "We need to be patient to see long-term change for the better."

Utah business leaders, a longtime force in the GOP, believe Lee is standing in the way of needed change on issues such as immigration and has hurt the economy with this strategy that led to the shutdown.

World Trade Center Utah President Lew Cramer was disappointed when Lee withdrew from immigration negotiations and then opposed legislation business leaders say they need to compete globally.

"You’ve got to be in the room to be a part of the game," Cramer said. "This nation is built on compromise. The Constitution was built on compromise. Marriage is built on compromise. Everybody can have principles, that’s terrific, but we need solutions."


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Stokes said it is a systemic problem, in which a tea-party call for a far-more-limited government butts up against the desires of business leaders.

"He never had a relationship with the business community. There was nothing there to deteriorate," Stokes said. "Mike has been working to have a relationship with them, but this is a group of people who don’t want a relationship with Mike."

Waiting in the wings » Lee still has the tea party but is losing support outside of it. His popularity has plunged, with a recent poll by BYU political scientists measuring his approval rating at 40 percent, remarkably low for Utah.

Many view a proposed change in the state’s unique nominating system as a slap at the junior senator.

Organizers for Count My Vote, which is promoting a ballot proposal to replace the caucus and convention system with a primary, say their goal is more voter participation and not, in any way, a reaction to Lee. But some of those organizers confide that donors to their efforts see the proposed change as a way to defeat Lee in the long term, muting the effect of his tea party followers in GOP nomination fights.

Some ambitious young Republicans have circled Lee for some time with 2016 on their minds.

Leading the group is Thomas Wright, a former state party chairman, and Dan Liljenquist, a one-time state senator who challenged Hatch in 2012. Other candidates could emerge as well.

Liljenquist blasted Lee in his Deseret News column, saying the senator lost credibility in the shutdown fight.

Wright, who has stayed largely out of the fray, told The Tribune the senator’s strategy may have lasting results.

"I’m just as concerned about Obamacare as Senator Lee is, but he burned bridges, and when you burn bridges, you can’t bring results. Leaders are ultimately judged by their results."

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