Tea Party activists are hoping that Thursday's Republican caucuses in Utah mark the first victory in the ultimate defeat of longtime Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah).
Freedom Works, a national Tea Party-aligned organization, has been preparing with Utah-based activists to elect sympathetic state convention delegates during the caucus meetings held statewide on Thursday evening. The caucuses are the first step in choosing the Republican Senate nominee. Hatch is facing off against former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist, the Tea Party favorite, and state Rep. Chris Herrod. In 2010, then-Sen. Bob Bennett (R) saw his reelection hopes collapse when he failed to garner enough convention support to gain a spot on the primary ballot.
"There have been two faces of Senator Hatch, the one that they see in Utah and the one that resides in Washington, D.C.," said Russ Walker, the federal and state campaign director for Freedom Works.
Walker cited Hatch's sponsorship of the federal State Children's Health Insurance Program and work on health care reform in 1993, along with what he said is the six-term senator's support for $7.5 trillion in new debt through votes to raise the federal debt ceiling 16 times. At the same time, Walker said, Hatch has been telling Utah voters he is a fiscal consersative who opposed the Obama health care plan.
Freedom Works has spent roughly $600,000 on independent expenditures in the Utah contest. During a conference call with reporters Thursday morning, Walker said the effort has included reaching out to voters who participated in the last two statewide caucuses to gain support in Thursday night's gatherings. In addition, he said, the group has been recruiting candidates to run for the 4,000 convention delegate spots.
"It is a David vs. Goliath story," observed Utah Tea Party activist D.J. Schanz of the Senate race.
Freedom Works officials and Schanz said that the group has not been focused on the competitive Republican gubernatorial contest, in which Utah Gov. Gary Herbert (R) is facing off against former state Rep. Morgon Philpot, Tea Party activist David Kirkham and state Rep. Ken Sumsion.
Liljenquist, 37, formally entered the U.S. Senate race late last year, stepping down from his state Senate seat. He was elected in 2008 to the state legislature, where he quickly gained notice for his work in redesigning the state's pension system as chairman of the retirement committee. The pension legislation won him a national award from Freedom Works and public-official-of-the-year honors from Governing Magazine.
Hatch's campaign has been leaving nothing to chance. Campaign officials told the Salt Lake Tribune Tuesday that they have reached out to 100,000 voters statewide to participate in the caucuses.
"No campaign has ever spent this much time and this much resources to accomplish what we have accomplished," Hatch campaign manager Dave Hansen told the Tribune.
During the 2010 Republican convention, delegates threw their support to Senate candidates Mike Lee and Tom Bridgewater, denying incumbent Bennett a spot on the ballot. Lee captured the seat in the November election. In 2004, Republican delegates denied then-Gov. Olene Walker a spot on the ballot, in a race later won by Jon Huntsman.
During this year's convention in April, a candidate will win the Republican nomination if he or she gains 60 percent of the vote. If nobody wins 60 percent, the two top candidates will gain spots on the June primary ballot. A final count of caucus results, letting the public know who is leading in delegates, may not be known until next week.
But the Tea Party contingent is confident.
"This is a watershed moment for Utah," Schanz said in the press call.
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