A Win for the (National) Tea Party in Utah

In a battle between two Tea-Party-backed candidates in Utah, the one endorsed by prominent out-of-state groups has come out ahead.

Mike Lee edged out Tim Bridgewater in Utah's Republican Senate primary last night, taking 51% to Bridgewater's 49%. Both are fiscal conservatives, and both have significant backing from Tea Party activists in the state. But Lee is the chosen candidate for two very influential groups in the Tea Party movement: FreedomWorks and the Tea Party Express.

FreedomWorks, the DC-based conservative grassroots group led by Dick Armey, endorsed Lee in February as it looked for a candidate to take down incumbent Republican Sen. Bob Bennett. Also looking to get into the race against Bennett, the Club for Growth, a powerful DC-based free-market group that backs conservative candidates, met with multiple candidates and appeared satisfied with either Lee or Bridgewater; it did not endorse, electing instead to run ads attacking Bennett.

Together, Lee and Bridgewater knocked Bennett off his own reelection ballot. Both had a strong showing in statewide caucuses in March, and when the elected delegates voted at the state GOP convention in May, Bennett failed to make it past the second round of voting. Bridgewater defeated Lee in the final round of voting, 57% to 43%.

It was a big deal for Tea Partiers, nationally: they had bounced an incumbent Republican senator from his own reelection race, reportedly the first time that's happened in Utah in 70 years, thanks largely to the Club for Growth's spending and the growing fiscal-conservative political culture in the state. Bennett was no liberal--he had an 83.6 lifetime rating from the American Conservatives Union--but he voted for TARP, worked on a bipartisan health care plan in previous Congresses that included things like an individual mandate, and he supported deficit-reduction measures that DC's fiscal conservatives don't like. All this sparked the ire of the Club for Growth and FreedomWorks and left an opening for a fiscal-conservative challenger in Utah to unseat him--which Lee and Bridgewater succeeded in doing.

Tea Party Express backed Mike Lee a week before Election Day, and Lee entered the home stretch with backing from two prominent groups in the Tea Party movement: FreedomWorks (though not a part of the movement itself, per se) was one of the original groups to facilitate Tea Party activism by coordinating protests and was there for the movement's inception; Tea Party Express has generated some of the movement's highest-profile rallies, drawing Sarah Palin to two of its events, and has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on several races, proving itself to be the movement's most significant money player.

Neither of these groups spent very much on Lee's behalf. TPX spent $22,000 over the course of a week; FreedomWorks, which historically hasn't done very much election spending, dedicated an even smaller sum to the race.

But after some ads and e-mail newsletters from Tea Party Express during the last week of the primary, Lee pulled it out in the end, despite Bridgewater securing his own endorsements from Tea Partiers within the state. (According to Utah GOP Chairman Dave Hansen described

Tea Party support in Utah as split between the two candidates, according to Utah GOP Chairman Dave Hansen, who questioned the effect of out-of-state endorsements, especially given that TPX's came so late in the game.

These groups probably would have been happy with Bridgewater: he's a fiscal conservative, too, and that's mostly what they care about. But they got their chosen candidate, and Mike Lee is now the odds-on favorite to become the next senator from Utah, one of the first true Tea Party senators in the country.