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Jon Huntsman Sr., Utah's wealthiest man, considers Sen. Mike Lee an extremist and predicts that Lee will face a major Republican challenge in 2016.
"All I can say is Mike Lee is an embarrassment to the state of Utah," Huntsman said in an interview with Politico. "He's been a tremendous embarrassment to our family, to our state, to our country to have him as a U.S. senator."
Lee served as legal counsel for former Gov. Jon Huntsman, who is Huntsman Sr.'s son. Lee is no longer close to his former boss and his relationship with Huntsman Sr. is nonexistent.
"He's tried to come in and see me several times," Huntsman Sr., the billionaire industrialist and philanthropist who is a major contributor to political candidates, said of Lee. "I have no interest whatsoever in chatting with him."
When asked if he had a response to Huntsman's strong words, Lee told the D.C.-based publication: "I don't."
It's no surprise that Lee has trouble with Utah's Republican establishment and it's been long rumored he'll face an intra-party challenge when he seeks re-election. Now that the 2014 elections are over and the attention is shifting to 2016, Lee and his supporters are taking steps to build his campaign apparatus.
Lee recently moved his chief of staff Boyd Matheson back to Utah to run his campaign and hired Neil Ashdown to run his Senate office. Ashdown previously served as Gov. Jon Huntsman's chief of staff.
"Senator Lee believes Utahns regularly demonstrate that they can talk about their political differences respectfully and can disagree without making it personal," Matheson, Lee's senior political adviser, told The Salt Lake Tribune on Monday when asked for a response to Huntsman Sr.'s comments. "Senator Lee will continue to be an unapologetic advocate for Utah families who think Washington should work for them and not the other way around."
Major conservative organizations have started coming to Lee's defense, hoping to fend off a primary challenger. Like the Senate Conservatives Fund and the Club for Growth, the conservative Madison Project recently announced its endorsement of Lee, saying: "He has been a strong voice and vote for conservatives, even when the odds against him appear intimidating and insurmountable."
Lee won his seat in 2010 riding a massive tea-party wave that swept away three-term Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah. Since then, Lee has been one of the most conservative members of the Senate, and has teamed up with Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, to lead an anti-"Obamacare" strategy that resulted in a government shutdown in 2013 and a recent fight over President Barack Obama's immigration orders that allowed Democrats the time to confirm more of the president's nominees.
Those moves have infuriated many Republicans, nationally and in Utah. Huntsman Sr. mentioned the shutdown in his criticism of the senator, saying it cost the Huntsman Cancer Institute federal money and hurt the state's recreation industry, since it forced national parks to close.
During the shutdown, Lee's approval numbers plummeted to 40 percent, but have since rebounded to 52 percent, in the latest Brigham Young University poll.
Lee hasn't changed his stances but he has sought to soften his rhetoric, saying the tea-party movement can't be solely obstructionism. In the past year, he has promoted an agenda that takes tea-party ideas and applies them to problems such as poverty, by boosting the child tax credit and reducing prison sentences for nonviolent offenders.
He has also sought to build relationships with Utah's business leaders, many of whom are Republican. He sponsored an event in August with the Salt Lake Chamber focused on, what he considers, excessive government regulation. At that event, Chamber President Lane Beattie noted that the senator and the business community haven't always seen eye to eye, but that he respected Lee's focus on reducing regulations that could hurt industry. Beattie, a former Utah Senate president, has said that business leaders have encouraged him to challenge Lee in 2016, though he has made no steps toward such a run.
Former Utah Republican Party Chairman Thomas Wright is considering running against Lee. Josh Romney, the son of former presidential nominee Mitt Romney, is also often mentioned as a potential candidate. Romney has said he's open to a run for public office but hasn't hinted at what seat or when.
On the Democratic side, Rep. Jim Matheson, who is leaving the House after seven terms, has said he'd consider a run for governor or Senate in 2016.