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Sen. Mike Lee has hired consulting firm America Rising, led by Mitt Romney's former campaign manager Matt Rhoades, to offer advice and research on potential 2016 opponents. That might result in a Romney confidant investigating the background of another Romney confidant.
Alex Dunn, who worked on Romney's campaigns and on his gubernatorial staff in Massachusetts, is considering a run against Lee, spurred on by Spencer Zwick, Romney's former finance director, and Josh Romney, one of Mitt Romney's five sons.
Clearly, Romney world has a complicated relationship with Utah's tea-party senator and so far Romney is staying mum.
The latest developments came after Josh Romney and a series of other high-profile Utah Republicans turned down entreaties from Zions Bank President Scott Anderson to challenge Lee, who is ranked as the most conservative senator in the nation. When Anderson couldn't recruit a challenger, he ended up endorsing the senator in March. It appeared no one would try to take on Lee in a Republican primary.
Josh Romney told the Deseret News on Friday that he wanted to see someone put Lee to the test and Zwick then told that newspaper Alex Dunn, who is now the president of Vivint, was the man to do it.
Dunn released a statement through a Vivint spokeswoman: "I've been having discussions with a group of people who are encouraging me to run for Senate."
He declined to comment beyond that. Mitt Romney, Josh Romney and Zwick didn't return requests for comment.
Zwick told the Deseret News his frustration with Lee stems from the 2013 government shutdown, which took place because Lee and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, led an attempt to strip funding for the Affordable Care Act from the budget. But the tensions between the Romney camp and Lee go back further than that.
Mitt Romney endorsed Sen. Bob Bennett in the 2010 race, where Lee emerged victorious.
The next year, in the thick of the presidential race, Romney met privately with Lee and sought his endorsement. Lee rebuffed him, saying he wanted to keep his options open.
Lee didn't end up endorsing Romney until March 2012, when the candidate had already won enough primaries to make it a near-mathematical certainty that he'd be the party's nominee.
The Romney team has held a grudge ever since, which may be one reason why Zwick and Josh Romney are prodding Dunn to jump in the race.
"Utah needs Mike Lee in the United States Senate, and America Rising, LLC will help ensure his campaign has the tools they need to take on any opponent while the senator focuses on taking his message directly to the people," Rhoades said in a statement.
For now, the list of potential Lee opponents begins and ends with Dunn, who has not played an active role in Utah's Republican Party beyond donating money some of it to Lee.
He contributed $4,800, the maximum at the time, to Lee's 2010 campaign. More broadly, Vivint employees have given Lee more money than those affiliated with any other organization. Lee has collected $82,000 from the alarm company's executives in the past six years, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Wells Capital Management comes in second place, giving $31,200.
Dunn also joined a group of Utah Republican donors, including Anderson, in signing a letter urging Congress to pass an immigration-reform bill in 2013. Lee opposed that bill, which passed the Senate, but never received a vote in the House.
Dunn graduated from Brigham Young University and worked on some Internet startups before joining Romney's 2002 gubernatorial campaign as the volunteer coordinator. Dunn then took a job in the Massachusetts governor's office, eventually becoming the deputy chief of staff. When Romney declined to run for a second term in 2006 and instead sought the presidency in 2008, Dunn moved to Utah and took a job with APX Alarm, which later became Vivint.
He became the company's president in 2013 and, according to Bloomberg Business, made $1.85 million last year.
Vivint is a major Utah company that is trying to distance itself from its troubled past, something that would likely come up in Rhoades' research if Dunn does become a Senate candidate.
Seven states have fined the company for its overly aggressive sales pitches, which were at times targeted at the elderly. Its regulatory problems in Utah have been more minor, with a consumer-protection complaint dismissed in 2007 after the company struck a deal with a disgruntled customer. While it has had an F rating from the Better Business Bureau, it currently has a B- grade. The company rebranded in 2011 as Vivint, and expanded rapidly because of a home-automation service and a new solar division.