SALT LAKE CITY -- One of the founders of Utah's tea party movement endorsed businessman Tim Bridgewater on Monday while a national tea party group rallied voters to support his opponent in the GOP Senate primary.
Bridgewater's endorsement by David Kirkham highlights a split in the loosely organized movement following three-term U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett's defeat at the Republican state convention in May.
Bridgewater and attorney Mike Lee are facing off in a primary today to replace Bennett. Both advanced to the primary by running to Bennett's right, saying they would rein in federal spending.
But without an incumbent in the race and little to distinguish their platforms, tea party supporters have struggled to coalesce around a single candidate.
Both Lee and Bridgewater have support from those who identify with the tea party movement and local tea party groups have largely abstained from endorsing either candidate.
But Lee, 38, has picked up the support of the California-based Tea Party Express, which is weighing in on primary races nationwide. Federal Election Commission reports show the group has spent $30,000 supporting Lee since Thursday, mostly on radio advertisements. FEC reports through June 2 show Bridgewater had spent about $350,000 on the race while Lee had spent about $300,000.
"We were very happy when the results of the nominating convention came out, but the purpose of all our involvement isn't necessarily to knock out the worst people, but to put in the best people who represent our values-- and that's Mike Lee," said Bryan Shroyer, political director for the Tea Party Express.
At the convention, Bridgewater won 57 percent of the vote -- 3 percent more and he would have won the nomination outright. A Brigham Young University survey of convention delegates showed that 85 percent of delegates had a favorable impression of the tea party movement and 42 percent of delegates considered themselves active supporters of the movement.
Kirkham said he believes Lee and Bridgewater, 49, both qualify as tea party candidates and that either one would make a good senator, but he believes Bridgewater could get more done in Washington.
"They both go for the same principles. They pretty much believe the same things. It's just a matter of preference, a matter of personality," he said. "I think he'll work hard to form coalitions, to make sure that Utah's interests are taken care of back east."
The race between Lee and Bridgewater, the founder of a consulting firm specializing in emerging markets, has largely focused on their professional backgrounds.
Lee contends that as a constitutional scholar who once clerked for Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, he's better suited to limit the role of government to what the country's founders intended it to be. Bridgewater contends that his business background means he's better suited to help create jobs.
Whoever wins the GOP nomination should cruise to victory in November in heavily Republican Utah. A Democrat hasn't won a U.S. Senate race here since 1970. The Democratic nominee is restaurateur and Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control chairman Sam Granato, who has never run for public office before.
Also today, Democrats will choose their nominee in the 2nd Congressional District. U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson is seeking a sixth term, but is facing a challenge from his left by retired teacher Claudia Wright.
Wright won 45 percent of the vote at the Democratic convention, forcing Matheson into his first Democratic primary. Matheson is being targeted by the left for voting against President Barack Obama's health care bill. Matheson has since said he would oppose repealing the legislation.
Several legislative, county commission and local school board races also will be on the ballot.
Turnout is expected to be low.