SALT LAKE CITY — 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 G. Hatch on Thursday in Utah's Republican caucuses.
Mr. Hatch has been waiting for them.
Each May, Mr. Hatch speaks to a group of University of Utah students visiting the nation's capital. In 2009, he candidly and fortuitously suggested that Mr. Bennett would be vulnerable to defeat at the next state convention. A year later, after Mr. Bennett lost, Mr. Hatch told a new group of students 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 grass-roots 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 Mr. Bennett lost in 2010, it sent shock waves 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.
Mr. Hatch, 78, 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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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.
Mr. Liljenquist said Utah's nominating system has greatly increased the prospects for an upset because the delegates are more immune to political ads. Mr. 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,' " Mr. Liljenquist said. "It's this same system that produced Orrin Hatch in 1976, out of the blue, with no name recognition."