SALT LAKE CITY – Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee was the face of the national tea party Tuesday night, delivering the movement’s response to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech.
Lee pinned the widening wealth gap on the president’s policies and tout the ideas of a new generation of leaders including himself and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.
“Americans know in their hearts that something is wrong. Much of what is wrong relates to the sense that the ‘American Dream’ is falling out of reach for far too many of us,” Lee said in his repared remarks. “We are facing an inequality crisis – one to which the president has paid lip-service, but seems uninterested in truly confronting or correcting.”
Obama plans to use the State of the Union to announce executive actions to raise the minimum wage for new federal contracts, help the long-term unemployed find work and expand job-training programs.
Lee, an attorney who is halfway through his first term, was chosen by Tea Party Express because he is a recognized leader who is popular among the GOP base because of the message he delivers about improving the economy and reducing the size, cost and intrusiveness of the federal government, said Sal Russo, co-founder of the organization. Tea Party Express is a national group representing the movement.
“People who have been willing to stand up and say, ‘Stop,’ like Mike Lee, have drawn a great deal of support,” Russo said.
In previous years, the speech has been delivered by Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn.; former presidential candidate Herman Cain; and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.
Quin Monson, director of Brigham Young University’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, said the spotlight will help Lee develop his brand with tea party supporters. But aligning so closely with the tea party could also put Lee at risk in future elections, Monson said, especially if Utah voters choose to use direct primaries in future elections instead of party caucuses and conventions.
A group pushing for that change hopes to get the issue on the ballot in November. Lee unseated incumbent Bob Bennett during the tea party wave of 2010 when delegates at the Utah GOP convention decided Bennett was not conservative enough to continue representing Utah.
“If he gets challenged in a primary by somebody who is moderate, this kind of speech could backfire,” Monson said. “If he wanted to be risk averse, he probably would have sat it out, ... but that hasn’t been his style so far.”
Lee came under heat after joining Cruz last fall in leading the fight that led to the 16-day partial government shutdown. Senate Republicans publicly slammed both for using a tactic that has taken a heavy toll on the GOP’s standing.
But the defiance was wildly cheered by outside conservative groups that used the months-long dispute to rally supporters and drive fundraising money to their political action groups. The far-right flank also hailed Cruz and Lee for what they call a principled, courageous stand.