DES MOINES, Iowa — Utah Sen. Mike Lee made his Iowa political debut Saturday with a call for his fellow tea party conservatives to take the lead in repairing the rift in the Republican Party by figuring out what they’re for, not just what they’re against.
Lee laid out that challenge as the keynote speaker at the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition’s annual Friends of the Family banquet to raise money for the organization intended to bring together tea party and evangelical conservatives.
“It’s easy to fall into a pattern in which we are just the party of no,” Lee said before his speech in an interview with the Deseret News and KSL-TV in the ornate Senate chambers of the Iowa Capitol.
“We will continue to say no to policies that we oppose,” the first-term Republican senator said. “It is every bit as important to identify those things that we’re for, those things that we’re eager to unite behind, those things that can help unite and unify our party.”
The GOP split over the tea party's tactics in the fight against the Affordable Care Act, led by Lee and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, that resulted in a costly federal government shutdown and a near-default on the nation’s debts.
Lee saw his favorability fall below 50 percent in polls by both the Deseret News/KSL and BYU while tea party candidates were defeated last Tuesday in key races nationwide, including for governor of Virginia.
While Lee said he continues to stand behind his effort to stop Obamacare, now it’s important for him to “help guide the political debate and discussion” to determine “how best the Republican Party can position itself for victories in 2014 and 2016 and beyond."
He downplayed his own role as a leader in that effort, labeling himself as “a guy who works in the United States Senate and has an opportunity to influence the national debate, and I’m going to do what I can do to do that.”
Lee was also careful not to refer to the tea party movement by name, instead using the term “conservatives” to describe the grass-roots movement that helped propel him into office in 2010 to replace longtime GOP Sen. Bob Bennett.
Tea party, Lee said, is a term used “to suggest that it’s a party, or as if to suggest that it’s a monolithic organization, or that it’s an organization at all. It isn’t. It’s a reference to the conservative movement.”
The invitation from the coalition, Lee said, was an opportunity to speak to activists who help influence the national political debate because Iowa is traditionally the first state to vote in presidential races.
His speech at the Iowa State Fairgrounds was reinforced by former GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, who urged the audience to better articulate their vision “like Mike Lee says.”
Palin also defended the tea party and derided party members who surrendered to what she suggested is the "church of big government" by abandoning the "good guys" who took on the new health care law.
Lee rallied the record audience of more than 1,200 by invoking the original tea party in Boston Harbor during the American Revolution and promising “we will never back down from a ‘Boston moment.’”
But his focus was on shifting the tea party from “protesting against the kind of government we don’t want to creating the one we do want” by tasking conservatives to come up with an agenda to unite the GOP.
While conservatives need to remain engaged in the fight to repeal Obamacare, Lee said they also need to devote the same energy to finding a replacement for the health care law.
Other issues that need to be tackled include breaking up what he termed “the corrupt nexus of big government, big business and big special interests,” as well as reforming immigration and providing more opportunities for the poor and middle class.
Lee said both Republicans and Democrats must be forced “to acknowledge there is another marriage debate in the country,” a reference to gay marriage. He said the plight of fatherless children, economic inequality and broken communities deserves just as much public attention.
The push for a new conservative reform agenda is the same message he delivered recently to the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington, D.C., think thank, in a speech described as conciliatory.
Lee even repeated lines from that speech titled, “What’s Next for Conservatives,” saying again Saturday that “frustration is not a platform. Anger is not an agenda. And outrage, as a habit, is not even conservative.”
He also said again that conservatism is “about inclusion. Successful political movements are about identifying converts, not heretics,” telling the largely enthusiastic audience, “this, too, is part of the challenge before us.”
Christopher Murphy, a political consultant and a county GOP chairman who traveled two hours from Missouri Valley, Iowa, to attend the banquet, said he appreciated Lee’s message.
“What he is saying is that conservatives are what this country needs, but we have to sell it better,” Murphy said. “A lot of times, Republicans think they’re right on the issues and they don’t have to sell the issues.”
That, he said, should not be tough for the tea party to take.
“They want to hear it,” Murphy said. “And they need to hear it.”
Vicki Crawford, a stay-at-home mom from Granger who calls herself a tea party follower and an evangelical Christian, had nothing but praise for Lee’s speech.
“I thought it was presidential,” Crawford said. “He had a very positive plan for how to turn things in the right direction. … But he did say we don’t stop fighting.”
University of Iowa political science professor Tim Hagle, an active Republican, said Lee may be attempting to offer himself as a leader who can take the tea party in a new direction.
“He might be saying, ‘Harness that energy, … harness that anger,’” Hagle said. “Put it in a new and productive direction, and be in that fight.”
Whether the tea party is ready to follow Lee remains to be seen, he said.
“A lot of tea party people are tired of what was termed the surrender caucus” in the GOP, Hagle said, and applauded Lee’s willingness to take on the establishment in a fight that led to the federal government shutdown and brought the nation close to default.
“That wasn’t the best thing,” Hagle said. “But it maybe got the base fired up. They key is, now can you redirect that?”
Kirk Jowers, head of the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics and a Republican, welcomed Lee's talk of uniting the fractured party.
"If Mike Lee can help the tea partiers understand that winning elections is still important, he will do incredible service to them and to the Republicans," Jowers said.
Lee will also help himself politically, Jowers said.
"I think Sen. Lee realized that the government shutdown did not advance any productive outcomes," he said. "And fairly or not, he received the lion's share of blame for it, both locally and nationally, so it’s the right time for him to pivot and show he is trying to solve problems as well as be ideologically pure."