In a surprising development that sets the stage for a dramatic political showdown, tea party and grass-roots conservatives tell Newsmax they have seized control of Utah's GOP delegate system, and are now in a position to select which candidates will represent the party in the midterm elections.
"Our feeling is that the majority of the Republican Party delegates are now tea party people," Brian Halladay, one of the founders of the grass-roots Utah Rising organization, tells Newsmax.
Utah GOP leaders say they can't be sure, but concede the activists' assessment may be accurate.
"I'm sure they have a very strong bloc, and they may have control," Dave Hansen, chairman of the Utah GOP, tells Newsmax. "But we won't know that until we get to the convention."
That sets the stage for Utah's May 8 GOP convention. The balloting will come in three waves.
The first ballot will winnow the current field of eight candidates down to three.
The second ballot will narrow the field to the top two.
The delegate count in the third ballot will determine whether either candidate can win 60 percent or more of the 3,500 delegates' votes. Any candidate attaining the 60 percent mark will automatically be the party's nominee.
If neither candidate reaches the 60 percent threshold, the two candidates will compete in a GOP-wide primary this summer.
A tea party takeover of Utah's GOP would appear to be particularly bad news for incumbent GOP Sen. Bob Bennett. Despite Bennett's conservative record, especially on social issues, many tea party leaders are not pleased with some of his positions and have openly campaigned to unseat him. They are especially displeased that Bennett initially supported the TARP bailouts, a program he has since tried to end.
Dave Weigel of the Washington Post reported Tuesday that a recent poll of more than 1,000 GOP delegates in Utah showed that Bennett is the top choice of only 15 percent of them. Tea party favorite Mike Lee, an attorney and first-time candidate, was the top choice of 35 percent of the delegates polled.
Hansen is skeptical that Bennett is in as much trouble as that survey suggests, however.
A Rasmussen Reports poll of 620 Utah GOP voters released April 15 suggests Hansen may be right. The poll showed Bennett leading the GOP field with 37 percent of the vote, compared to 14 percent for Lee and 14 percent for businessman Tim Bridgewater, who previously made two unsuccessful runs for the House of Representatives. Former Congressman Merrill Cook was the choice of 6 percent of respondents.
It is important to note, however, that under GOP's system in Utah, rank-and-file voters only get an opportunity to pick between the top two delegate vote-getters (and even that assumes neither candidate wins 60 percent of the delegates' votes).
That means Bennett faces the nightmare scenario of being an incumbent senator unable to win his own party's nomination to defend his own seat. That startling outcome would send perhaps the loudest signal yet that the tea party movement is exerting a strong gravitational pull on the Republican Party, pushing it to the right.
"If you'd asked me that two months ago, I'd of said I would be very surprised," Hansen tells Newsmax of the notion that Bennett might not qualify to defend his own seat. "I would be less surprised today, after watching the turnout at the caucuses and what's happened."
A grass-roots takeover in Utah would mark the first time the tea party has assumed control of a state-level GOP apparatus. Nevada's GOP also experienced a tea party surge. Clark County's Republican Party, which presides over GOP activities in Las Vegas, is now controlled by grass-roots conservative activists.
Sen. Bennett's son, Jim Bennett, is chairing his father's re-election campaign. He concedes that the tea party movement is "very active" in Utah, and that "there is a tremendous anger with Washington, D.C."
Jim Bennett tells Newsmax that the senator has been diligently meeting with GOP state convention delegates, and that those visits have been very productive.
"We're finding when they actually have a chance to interact with the senator, they recognize that they're not far apart, that he's with them, and that he's the most effective guy to lead the charge back in Washington against the Obama agenda," Jim Bennett says.
Possible indications that Utah's GOP may now be controlled by tea party delegates: In March, when the state party caucused to choose its convention delegates, it experienced a 70 percent to 80 percent turnover. In a normal election year, Hansen says, about half the incumbent delegates are re-elected.
Also, the statewide caucuses usually draw about 30 to 35,000 participants. But in March, after intensive tea party activism and the controversial healthcare reform vote, a record number of participants -- some 75,000 -- turned out to participate in the delegate-selection process.
Hansen describes it as a "huge turnout."
"There's no question the Utah Rising movement got a lot of delegates elected," he says, adding that the shift in power toward grass-roots conservatives is not expected to affect Utah's other congressional races.
Utah Rising is an alliance of the various grass-roots organizations in Utah, which include Tea Party Express, Tea Party Patriots, the Davis County 9.12 Group and Salt Lake County 9.12.
Even before the rise of the tea party movement, the state was a conservative bastion. It gave GOP Sen. John McCain over 62 percent of its vote in the 2008 presidential contest.
Hansen says Bennett problems stem in part from the tough economy and voters' frustration with Washington.
"In normal circumstances I'm not sure that we would be seeing this," he says. "But with the economy and the uncertainty in the economy, there are a lot of people out there who are mad and scared, and they want to take it out on somebody."
If Bennett gets knocked off the ballot, he will not be able to run in the general election as an independent. Utah law forbids a candidate from appearing on the ballot as an independent after he or she has been certified as a party candidate. Bennett filed for re-election as a Republican.
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