SALT LAKE CITY — The tea party movement that toppled former Utah Sen. Bob Bennett in 2010 and supported his successor, Sen. Mike Lee, remains strong, a Harvard University professor said Thursday at the University of Utah.
"It has been very, very successful and continues to be very successful as a leveraging operation, not a label or as a popularity contest," said Theda Skocpol, a government and sociology professor at Harvard.
Speaking at the U.'s Hinckley Institute of Politics, Skocpol said the tea party has pulled the Republican Party to the extreme right, particularly on health care, immigration and global warming, preventing political compromise.
But Skocpol, co-author of the book "The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism," said that doesn't mean supporters aren't pragmatic about achieving their goals.
She said Lee, who faces re-election in 2016, is already exhibiting that trait after standing with another national tea party leader, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, in the battle that led to an unpopular shutdown of the federal government.
"I noticed Sen. Lee refused to endorse Ted Cruz for president," Skocpol said, "which I take to mean he's very pragmatically keeping his options open among the various conservative contenders for the Republican nomination."
And while Lee has been promoting what he calls a conservative reform agenda largely aimed at helping the middle class, the Harvard professor said it's not likely he's backing away from his tea party ideals.
"In general, I think tea party people of all stripes are quite pragmatic about what the goal is," Skocpol said. "I would be very surprised if Sen. Lee is actually moderating on any of the major policy issues of the day."
Instead, she said, Lee "may be getting a little bit more practical about what tactics one wants to use" in what will be a presidential election year, when more voters go to the polls. "But he's still a very tough-minded, extreme conservative."
In the upcoming presidential race, Skocpol said Cruz "thrills" tea party voters because they like his intellect, his "no-compromise stance" toward President Barack Obama and his hard line on immigration.
Cruz has the potential of pushing the GOP primary candidates closer to the tea party agenda, she said, while the party's 2012 nominee, Mitt Romney, was seen by the tea party as a candidate who couldn't be trusted.
That meant Romney faced a series of challengers who surged throughout the primaries, Skocpol said, because those races seemed to be about "who can move the furthest to the right, (and) who can be the toughest."
David Kirkham, a Utah tea party leader, said he believes the movement has succeeded in moving more mainstream Republicans toward being more "freedom oriented, libertarian, (and for) less government."
Kirkham was among the Republican delegates who ended Bennett's re-election attempt in the GOP state convention five years ago and is now a member of Lee's re-election effort.
"We're all Republicans," Kirkham said. "I think that's where the tea party has made large strides lately. That's something I've always worked on, trying to work with the entire party and not being so shrill."
Utah's junior senator is working "to lead the party to the direction of freedom and liberty. And he has worked hard to make that case," Kirkham said. "You don't see him out there grandstanding, saying, 'I'm going to run for president.'"
Lee has been able to attract support from a wide range of Republicans, including some who are more moderate and had been viewed as potential challengers, such as former presidential candidate Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.
"We have worked very, very diligently to include everyone that we can," Kirkham said. "I think that's one of the great lessons of politics: The longer you're in it, the more tolerant you become."
Skocpol said in an interview that in a very Republican state such as Utah, a Lee candidacy represents "a dilemma for citizens and members of the Republican Party who would prefer a more moderate path."
She said she believes there are "a lot of those people. In national surveys, about half of all Republicans do not say they sympathize with the tea party. They have views that could support somebody like Jon Huntsman."
But the strength of the tea party, the professor said, makes it difficult for GOP candidates to support increasing investments in public education, dealing with global warming and accepting Medicaid expansion.
"The dynamics don't make that possible," she said. Members of the tea party movement are "very energized. And they're still half of the Republican base. And they're the more attentive, the more active, the more participatory."
U. political science professor Tim Chambless said Lee could will face a primary challenger next year when a new nominating system allows candidates to bypass party delegates and get on the ballot through gathering signatures.
Chambless said the tea party may be "loud and visible, but it's a minority."