In often mocking the “Great Big Adult GOP Tames the Tea Party” meme, I understand there are circumstances where self-styled “constitutional conservatives” may have to watch their intra-party backs. And that could be true of Sen. Mike Lee, often a boon companion of Ted Cruz or Rand Paul in various “stands” they are making for that perfect pre-New Deal (or maybe even pre-Civil War) constitutional order. It seems Lee has run afoul of one of Utah’s richest and most prominent figures, Jon Huntsman, Sr. (not to be confused with his RINO son, the former governor and U.S. Ambassador to China), per this report from Politico‘s Manu Raju.

As the 43-year-old Lee plots his 2016 reelection bid, he is courting business leaders under the radar, hoping to head off a primary challenge backed by business leaders and other establishment figures in his home state, like billionaire Jon Huntsman Sr., an influential bank CEO and a former Utah GOP party chairman.

Some powerful establishment Republicans in Utah are tired of Lee’s hard-line positions. He stood with Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas last year when the federal government closed and again this month when they tried to take on President Barack Obama on immigration but ended up giving Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada leverage to confirm controversial nominations.

So as Lee fights to make sure he doesn’t become the first tea party senator ousted by the party establishment, he’s effectively turned the Republican intraparty war that has defined Senate primary politics for the past four years on its head.

Scott Anderson, a prominent bank president in Salt Lake City, has privately commissioned polls to assess Lee’s race while meeting with some of his prospective foes to gauge their interest.

And one former state GOP party chairman, Thomas Wright, is actively considering a bid against the Utah freshman, while others in the business world are keeping the door open about a prospective bid.

You’d normally figure these people are just trying to get the incumbent Senators attention so that he doesn’t meet entreaties for federal help with some stone-faced recitation of the Federalist Papers. But it sounds a mite more personal, at least for Huntsman.

“All I can say is Mike Lee is an embarrassment to the state of Utah,” Huntsman said in an interview, calling Lee “an extremist” for his role in the government shutdown fight that he said cost his cancer research institute millions in federal dollars and hurt small businesses affected by the closure of national parks. “He’s been a tremendous embarrassment to our family, to our state, to our country to have him as a U.S. senator.”

Huntsman, who has longstanding ties to Lee’s family, added: “He’s tried to come in and see me several times. … I have no interest whatsoever in chatting with him.”


Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.