Disgruntled conservatives planted the seeds for Sen. Robert Bennett's defeat long before delegates at the Utah Republican Convention made it official two years ago. Now, some of them hope to replicate their success against six-term Sen. Orrin Hatch Thursday in Utah's Republican caucuses.
Hatch has been waiting for them.
Each May, Hatch speaks to a group of University of Utah students visiting the nation's capital. In 2009, he candidly and fortuitously suggested that Bennett would be vulnerable to defeat at the next state convention. A year later, after Bennett lost, Hatch met with a new group of students. He told them he had been working fervently to ensure he wouldn't meet a similar fate.
"They said they had started the previous December a very active grassroots effort to contact every delegate, every past delegate, every sitting delegate, every potential delegate and put forth a persuasive argument why Sen. Hatch should be elected to another unprecedented term," said Tim Chambless, a political science professor at the University of Utah who was escorting the students. "He said he was not going to have the same experience as Sen. Bennett."
When the three-term Bennett lost in 2010, it sent shockwaves through the Republican Party and heralded a revolt that saw tea-party-backed candidates such as Christine O'Donnell, Sharron Angle and Marco Rubio topple more established, mainstream Republicans.
On Thursday Utah's GOP voters once again will give political parties and their candidates an early glimpse into the mindset of conservative Republicans regarding congressional races.
The gatherings represent the first step in Utah's unique system of nominating political candidates. Those attending the neighborhood caucuses will elect 4,000 delegates to next month's GOP convention. The convention delegates will narrow the field. If a candidate wins at least 60 percent of the vote, they become the party's nominee. Otherwise, the top two vote-getters move on to a primary.
Hatch and dozens of supporters are recruiting delegates who will support his nomination at the convention. The tea party affiliate, FreedomWorks, is leading the charge for anyone but Hatch and has spent more than $475,000 so far this year in that effort. The organization's super PAC has mailed a 44-page brochure critical of Hatch to some 37,000 potential caucus participants.
Meanwhile, challengers such as former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist, 37, and state Rep. Chris Herrod, 46, are also pleading their cases to potential delegates.
Liljenquist said Utah's nominating system has greatly increased the prospects for an upset because the delegates are more immune to political ads. Hatch is the only candidate with the resources to run television ads, and they are a regular presence in prime time.
"We have the best system in the world for negating the influence of outside money on races because you have to look 4,000 people in the eye and say, 'Here's why you should send me to Washington'," Liljenquist said. "It's this same system that produced Orrin Hatch in 1976, out of the blue, with no name recognition."
Hatch has rarely been tested since.
"There's nothing easy about that process, but we're going to do fine," said Hatch, who turns 78 later this month. "We've done everything that you really need to do."
Most of those watching delegate recruiting agree that Hatch is in better shape than Bennett. Hatch has reached out to the state's conservatives and recently received a 99 percent grade for his 2011 voting record from the Club for Growth against a lifetime rating of 78 percent. He is a serial critic of the Obama administration.
Joni Crane, GOP chairwoman for Uintah County in eastern Utah, opposed Bennett in 2010. She describes herself as a tea party supporter motivated by political commentator Glenn Beck to get off the couch and shake things up. She supported the eventual winner in 2010, Sen. Mike Lee. While she said she is still undecided this time, she agrees with Hatch's argument that his seniority would help the state.
"The people who are embracing the uberconservative right are miscalculating," Crane said. "People are not equating Hatch with Bennett ... and we don't have a good pool of people to replace Hatch."
Those most critical of Hatch are taking aim at some past votes that had bipartisan support in Congress, such as backing government funding for financial firms in danger of collapse during the last recession. Hatch is also one of the original architects of the State Children's Health Insurance Program, which provides health coverage to low- and moderate-income children not eligible for Medicaid.
Boyd Pugmire, a potential delegate from Cache County, is chafing at FreedomWorks' efforts to oust Hatch.
"I don't believe people want to let some organization out of Washington, D.C., tell them who their congressman should be," Pugmire said. "That's for Utahans to decide."
But FreedomWorks is not the only outside group trying to influence the election. Nearly 40 percent of the $4.9 million Hatch's campaign raised last year came from political action committees representing insurers, technology giants, banks and the myriad other corporations and trade groups influenced by the legislation that moves through the Senate Finance Committee, where he's the ranking member.
"I wouldn't be running again if it wasn't for being the Republican leader of the Finance Committee. Everyone knows that's the most important committee in the Senate, if not the most important committee in Congress," Hatch said. "It's been 80 years since a Utahan has chaired that committee. I think I'll have the opportunity to do that."
Meanwhile, his opponents are hoping that Utah Republicans will once again make a statement to the rest of the nation about frustration with Congress.
"The anger has died down some but the fatigue has grown," Liljenquist said. "Congress's approval ratings are at an all-time low and people in this state are looking for new leaders to change this up."
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