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Utah's independent voters are cooling to the state's tea party movement, with support dropping by more than half over the last several months, according to a newly released poll.
The dip could have far-reaching ramifications as the conservative movement gears up to once again flex its muscle in the 2012 elections, with leaders vowing to target Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, Gov. Gary Herbert and a number of state legislators who backed Utah's guest-worker law.
And the most direct beneficiary may be U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah.
"It seems you have Republican candidates making enormous efforts to ingratiate themselves to Republican delegates and primary voters who are aligned with the tea party. While that may work well to get the nomination, it may lead to problems down the road," said Quin Monson, associate director of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University, which conducted the poll, released Tuesday.
The rush to the right by a candidate like Hatch or his likely challenger, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, could create middle-ground where a moderate Democratic candidate like Matheson could appeal to moderates and independents disenchanted with the tea party.
Monson found that support for the tea party among independent voters fell from nearly half at the 2010 election to just 24 percent in April of this year.
There were smaller dips in support among moderate Republicans. However the backing among those who consider themselves "strong Republicans" actually increased to 82 percent, the poll found.
Overall, support slipped from 53 percent in November 2010 to 46 percent in April. But Monson said the shift shows that the tea party is becoming more of a Republican phenomenon.
Larry Jensen, an organizer of the group Utah Rising, one of several loose-knit groups that make up the Utah tea party, said he thinks people have been misinformed about what the tea party really is.
"The media has been 100 percent lock, stock and barrel in opposition to the tea party from the beginning, and that's both the national media as well as the local media," he said. "They've painted average, normal people as extremists. So, with that said, I can see why people who are casual participants in politics … are going to be more and more negative."
For example, he points to HB116, the guest-worker program passed by the Utah Legislature and opposed by tea party loyalists. He said groups like The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Sutherland Institute sought to paint HB116 opponents as bigoted and racist, which he said is untrue.
"My own mother said, 'I don't know how you can be a member of the tea party, they're just so violent,' and I said, 'Where do you get information like that?' " Jensen said. "That's totally manufactured."
The apparent loss of support among independents and moderate Republicans may not actually erode the tea party's power in Utah politics. The state's caucus-and-convention system allows the more energized and die-hard partisans to turn out and be elected delegates, then get a first crack at nominating candidates to represent their parties.
In 2010, a loose network of groups, including the tea party, Utah Rising, The 9/12 Project and others, banded together to defeat three-term U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett.
Monson said now, it appears, that the tea party is becoming "an even more Republican phenomenon," more rooted in the GOP than simply a group of conservative activists.
Jensen, however, said that has always been the case.
"The tea party has always been completely absorbed," he said. "It didn't get absorbed. It has always been a part of the Utah Republican Party."
Tea party poll online
For an analysis of the numbers and charts comparing tea party support among different sectors of the electorate, go to utahdatapoints.com.