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Mike Lee’s Utah Problem

It is a common assumption that leading supporters of the GOP’s defunding/shutdown strategy are so politically secure back home that they can afford to ignore the national political backlash against their tactics. While that may be true in many places, that isn’t the case in Utah, where Mike Lee may even be in danger of being challenged under a new system that would make his re-election less likely. The Wall Street Journalreports:

Republican circles are now rife with talk of who might challenge Mr. Lee in 2016. So far, no one is firmly raising a hand. But the Count My Vote initiative to do away with the state’s caucus system, backed by many of the state’s largest GOP donors and business names, represents perhaps the best-organized effort in the country to counteract the tea-party wave in the 2010 elections.

Mr. Lee could face a tougher route to re-election in 2016 if GOP caucuses are replaced with a direct primary. That would allow a more centrist candidate to make an appeal to all Republican voters, not just the activists who dominate caucuses, political observers say.

Signs of Utah’s unhappiness over the shutdown are in plain view. A huge billboard along the route in from the airport thanks Republican Gov. Gary Herbert for reopening the state’s eight national parks during the shutdown with a $1.7 million check to the federal government.

Utah’s top radio talk show host, Republican Doug Wright, has persistently blasted Mr. Lee’s tactics on air. A running poll on the conservative station’s website has 81% of listeners describing Sen. Lee’s role in the budget battle as “a fool’s errand.”

I don’t think any purpose would be served by a primary challenge against Lee, and it would be a shame for the prospects of conservative policy reform if Republicans voted Lee out. Nonetheless, this discontent is something that he should be taking seriously, and I’m not sure that he is. This isn’t just the usual griping from centrist Republicans, which Lee might easily dismiss. It represents broader dissatisfaction with how Lee has been doing his job. It would be one thing if Lee could defend the shutdown as an unfortunate necessity that yielded important benefits for his constituents, but all that his constituents received was a drop in their business. Like many other Western states, Utah depends on national parks for a significant part of its economy, so there was no way that even a brief shutdown wouldn’t have adversely affected the state.

Some Utah Republicans think that the voters will change their minds over time:

“You are going to have people angry at you whenever you take on a really tough issue,” said Utah GOP chairman James Evans. “But over time, people will come around to Mike’s views as he continues to articulate them.”

This misses that most Utahns aren’t upset with Lee because he “took on” a tough issue, but because he took it on in a way that wasn’t going to work and ended up costing them money. One of the biggest mistakes any incumbent can make is to assume that the voters back home will eventually “come around” to his view when he has positioned himself squarely on the wrong side of public opinion. Incumbents that think this way very soon become ex-incumbents.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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