PROVO – The organizer of the Utah tea party movement said Gov. Gary Herbert is "very weak" politically and faces a tough fight to win reelection in 2012.
David Kirkham also asserted that the tea party movement is more influential right now in Utah than the GOP and said the governor needs to explain his stands to followers.
Those include Herbert's role in the attempt to hastily overhaul the state's open records law, HB477. Herbert signed the bill despite a push from Utahns across the political spectrum to veto it, then called lawmakers into a costly special session to repeal it.
"Politically, he's very weak," Kirkham said. "I haven't spoken to a single federal or state legislator who thinks he's a strong leader. I think what our country needs right now, our state, is a strong leader. And I don't think we have one."
Kirkham, who said tea party followers are organizing in Salt Lake, Utah, Weber, Davis, Tooele Summit and Washington counties to influence upcoming GOP races, suggested that spells trouble for Herbert.
"Gov. Herbert will have a difficult time in this next election cycle because he will be challenged directly," Kirkham said. "We're going to push these issues of fiscal responsibility. Again, it comes back to a lack of leadership."
The governor's spokeswoman, Ally Isom, said Herbert is "is not going to worry about chatter right now. He's going to focus on leadership decisions" on issues that matter to mainstream Utahns rather than "hostile voices" within the Republican Party.
She cited the issues outlined by the governor in his recent State of the State speech, which included warning the federal government that Utah is a state, not a colony. "He's not just blowing smoke on those," Isom said. "He's working hard."
Asked whether Herbert believes the tea party movement was more influential than the GOP, Isom said, "I don't know how the governor perceives the tea party. That's an election question."
Kirkham said there's hope for Herbert among tea party followers, pointing out that U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, "has been able to turn a lot of that anger away. Could Herbert turn this anger away? Absolutely."
He said the governor needs to reach out to tea party followers as Hatch has done and discuss not just HB477, but also his signing a guest-worker bill allowing illegal immigrants to work in Utah and not knowing about a $13 million settlement the state quietly made with a losing bidder on the massive I-15 rebuilding project through Utah County.
After former Sen. Bob Bennett lost his reelection bid last year at the state GOP convention largely due to tea party efforts, Hatch has been careful to court their support.
Hatch's campaign manager, Dave Hansen, a former state Republican Party chairman, said he's not sure the tea party movement is more influential than the GOP.
"Are they a force to be reckoned with in Utah politics? Of course they are," Hansen said. "Are they greater or lesser than other groups or the established party? I don't know. We'll have to wait and see."
But he suggested candidates would be wise to pay attention to tea party concerns. "You get enough opponents in the course of a political campaign without having to go out and create them on their own."
University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank said while candidates should be careful to communicate with tea party followers, it's not clear how much political clout they have.
"My guess is for the most part, they're going to be absorbed into the Republican ranks," Burbank said, noting the movement lacks structure, making it unclear whether Kirkham is speaking for Utahns who identify themselves with the tea party.
In the recent GOP delegate election to replace retiring state Sen. Chris Buttars in District 10, the state representative endorsed by the tea party lost to Aaron Osmond, who has never held office.
That representative, Ken Ivory, of West Jordan, said the tea party endorsement "would have been extremely helpful" had he not been one of a dozen candidates in a race with what he called "interesting dynamics."
Ivory, a founding member of the Utah tea party along with Kirkham, said Herbert should be matching his actions with his words, especially when it comes to confronting the encroachment of the federal government described in his State of the State speech.
"Now is the time for a governor who gets that deeply, who doesn't just say the words, but who is committed to those actions," Ivory said. "To the extent people in the tea party see a sound bite over substance, there's a disconnect and it's a problem."