Tea Party criticizes Utah Mormon politicians as not being conservative enough


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By Kirk Johnson
The New York Times

COALVILLE, Utah — Jacqueline Smith fits no one’s stereotype of a political kingmaker. A home-schooling Mormon mother of five, Ms. Smith lives in a modest ranch-style house here in the mountains outside Salt Lake City with her husband, Cleve, a plumbing contractor.

But in the muscular arena of Tea Party and so-called Sept. 12 groups that have surged into dominance in Utah over the last year, places like Coalville and the Smith house have become unlikely stations for politicians to come kiss the ring.

Senator Orrin G. Hatch, a six-term Republican who faces re-election next year, has been among Ms. Smith’s supplicants, seeking the endorsement of her group, the STAR Forum, for Save The American Republic, and others like it. Ms. Smith is not sold on Mr. Hatch yet, and she does not think too many others in the Tea Party community are either.

“I don’t think he’s winning over anyone,” Ms. Smith said, smiling sweetly on a couch in her living room decorated with patriotic bunting and a giant engraved plaque of the Declaration of Independence.

In addition to Mr. Hatch, two other Republicans closely associated with Utah are likely to be in the national spotlight next year — Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, and Jon M. Huntsman Jr., the former governor of Utah, both possible presidential candidates.

And the three, Mormons all, are facing varying degrees of revolt where they might least like it or expect it — in their own backyard among mostly Mormon Tea Party members who are pushing for still more conservative fortitude.

“We oppose all three,” said David Kirkham, a businessman who helped found one of Utah’s first Tea Party groups.

Mr. Romney, who has family roots in Utah, blazed further into local life with his leadership of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. But he has since been besmirched, Mr. Kirkham and others said, by his involvement with a Massachusetts health care overhaul that is anathema to many Tea Party members who see it as a model for the Obama plan passed last year.

Mr. Huntsman took a moderate stance on many social issues as governor and also supported carbon emissions cap-and-trade legislation to reduce heat-trapping gases, another Tea Party no-no.

“On a good day, he’s a socialist,” said Darcy Van Orden, a co-founder of Utah Rising, a clearinghouse group, referring to Mr. Huntsman. “On a bad day, he’s a communist.”

As for Mr. Hatch, Mr. Kirkham said, “We have exactly the same game plan as we did last time with Bennett.”

That would be former Senator Bob Bennett, a Republican whose long political career was unceremoniously ended in 2010 when Mr. Kirkham and other Tea Party-inspired delegates swept into control at the party’s state convention.

In a few quick votes, the delegates denied Mr. Bennett’s renomination. One of their favorites, Mike Lee, a former clerk for Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. of the Supreme Court, ultimately won the general election.

That event, many Republicans here say, set the stage for everything leading to the 2012 election. The Tea Party showed it could throw a knockout punch, and the candidates the Tea Party now opposes saw how it was done and are thus forearmed.

Mr. Hatch, in particular, is taking pre-emptive action by meeting with as many Tea Party groups as he can, said his campaign manager, David Hansen.

“Do I think we’ve made progress? Absolutely,” Mr. Hansen said. “They may not agree with everything he has done, but they appreciate that he is listening to them and talking to them.”

In at least 25 to 30 meetings over the last year, by Mr. Hansen’s count, Mr. Hatch has “emphasized things they believe in and he has supported,” Mr. Hansen said. “It’s an ongoing process; it will continue.”

A spokeswoman for Mr. Romney declined to comment about Tea Party criticism in Utah. A person close to Mr. Huntsman, who announced his resignation as American ambassador to China in January, said he was not commenting on his future until he returned from China.

What amplifies the Tea Party’s role is that Utah, more than perhaps any other state, is dominated by the Republican Party. No Democrat has won statewide office here since a two-term attorney general in the 1990s. That means Tea Party activists do not need to think much, or talk much, about the Democrats, who can largely be dismissed as irrelevant; they can thus concentrate fully on remaking the Republican Party from within, by shaping it and handpicking candidates.

The prospect of two Mormon candidates for president and a bruising Senate fight could give those homegrown views an even louder voice, said the Republican Party’s state chairman, Thomas E. Wright. “Every Utahan’s voice is going to be heard across the nation,” Mr. Wright said.

Some longtime political observers here see in the Tea Party’s rise an echo of the historic realignment in the mid-1970s when Mr. Hatch first rose to power and Republicans consolidated their grip.

“Before 1975, the pendulum swung back and forth in Utah between Democrats and Republicans,” said Thomas G. Alexander, a retired professor of Utah history at Brigham Young University.

Mr. Hatch’s victory in 1976 over a Democratic senator, Frank E. Moss, was the trumpet herald of party dominance, Mr. Alexander said. Now, paradoxically, a new chapter in the book Mr. Hatch helped write could pose a threat to him.

“What happened in the election in 2010 shows that they have inordinate power in the Republican Party to shift the party further to the right,” Mr. Alexander said, referring to the Tea Party groups.

Some Republicans believe Tea Party invincibility has been overstated. A Tea Party-backed candidate, Morgan Philpot, failed last year to unseat Utah’s only Democratic congressman, Jim Matheson. The state’s presidential primary also comes late in the campaign season, which means that momentum and delegate counts from earlier states will already be in the bag, or not, for the candidates, by the time they get here.

And Mr. Hatch, others pointedly say, is not Mr. Bennnet.

“People are seriously underestimating Hatch,” said Michael Swenson, a businessman and Tea Party leader in Utah County, a conservative stronghold south of Salt Lake City. Mr. Swenson said he thought that Mr. Hatch’s experience and financial war chest could make for a bitter, divisive fight within the party.

In a state where politics, religion and culture are so intertwined, that fight itself could have huge repercussions. The traditional links — that a good Mormon is a good conservative — has been broken, many Mormon Tea Party members say.

“My mother says, ‘If he’s a bishop, he must be a good Republican,’ ” said Susan Southwick, state coordinator for a group called Utah Patriots. “I say, ‘Do your homework.’ ”

Ms. Southwick said she believed that the Tea Party revolt — she personally does not see much chance of her supporting Mr. Hatch, Mr. Huntsman or Mr. Romney — has created a healthy tension among Mormons who will be forced to look deeper into a candidate’s views.

Here in Coalville, Ms. Smith said the question she was wrestling with, especially in the Senate race, was over substance: has Mr. Hatch really changed or is he simply saying what his audience wants to hear?

“I think Hatch has opened his eyes,” she said. “Do I believe he’s sincere? I don’t know.”

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