Conservatives Look to Bounce Bennett in Utah Caucuses

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(UPDATE: Caucus results should shape up by noon on Wednesday, according to Mike Lee's campaign.)

In several hours it will be caucus night in Utah, and with it will come a test--and an opportunity--for the national conservative movement.

Incumbent Sen. Bob Bennett (R) will face off against no less than seven challengers tonight, and there's a good chance he will lose out.

If that happens, conservatives will have knocked off an incumbent GOP senator--one who isn't liberal by any means, but who just isn't conservative enough for their liking. And it will mean that, in the current electoral climate, GOP incumbents in right-leaning states can't afford to deviate much from a straight fiscal-conservative line.

A power-duo of two DC-based conservative groups, the Club for Growth and FreedomWorks, have teamed up to oppose Bennett in this race, claiming Utah as an opportunity to elect a more fiscally conservative senator in a very conservative state. The Club announced its opposition to Bennett in January, and it has tun TV ads as well as direct mail and phone calls against him. Attorney Mike Lee will benefit from an endorsement from FreedomWorks, which boasts a close relationship with tea party activists nationwide and says it has been working with grassroots organizers to turn out caucus-goers for Lee.

Conservative activists and tea partiers in Utah, meanwhile, have been gearing up for the caucuses.

The other top challengers in the race are businessman Tim Bridgewater, conservative activist Cherilyn Eagar, and former Rep. Merrill Cook.

Jim Bennett--Sen. Bennett's son and campaign manager--says the campaign will have a robust get-out-the-vote operation tonight. Bennett has been running TV ads featuring Newt Gingrich, who has endorsed him.

But none of the challengers will actually have to beat Bennett tonight: if there's enough support for conservative challengers, collectively, Bennett could lose his spot on the ballot--and with it, probably, his Senate seat.

Here's how: tonight, caucus-goers will elect a total of 3,500 delegates to the state Republican convention. Between now and then, those delegates will talk to candidates and decide who to vote for. Many of them are running as delegates who have promised to vote for a specific candidate.

At the convention, which will be held May 8, those delegates will decide which candidates make it onto the ballot for Senate.

The first round of convention voting eliminates all but the top three candidates; a second narrows it to two; if one of those candidates gets over 60% of the vote in a third round, the primary process is over and the Republicans have their senatorial candidate. If not, a primary will be held June 22.

So, potentially, in a worst-case scenario for Bennett, his delegates could need to win around 60% of the caucuses tonight in order for him to stay on the ballot as a Republican candidate for Senate, as anti-Bennett delegates could coalesce behind the leading conservative candidate on May 8.

Utah GOP Chairman Dave Hansen says it's tough to tell who will come out ahead tonight, but that tea party groups will likely drive a higher-than-usual turnout. Hansen doesn't see the outside groups like FreedomWorks and the Club having too much impact.

If Bennett loses, it will be, in part, because he worked closely with Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) on the Health Americans Act in the last Congress--a truly bipartisan health care bill that, at one time, was the leading reform proposal in Congress before it fell by the wayside after Obama took office. That, along with other votes, has drawn the opposition from FreedomWorks and the Club for Growth.

Bennett, currently in his third Senate term, isn't a liberal by any means--he has a lifetime 83.6 rating from the American Conservatives Union--but fiscal conservatives cite his record on spending and his support for a deficit-reduction commission (which they have opposed this year).

If Bennett doesn't collect enough delegates tonight, he could be another casualty of the conservative movement--and an example for Republican candidates nationwide.

Thumbnail photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

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Chris Good is a political reporter for ABC News. He was previously an associate editor at The Atlantic and a reporter for The Hill.

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