Results Unclear in Utah, but Trouble May Loom for Bennett

There's no real way to tell who "won" the Utah GOP caucuses yet, but it's likely that Sen. Bob Bennett has a fight on his hands.

If he loses, he'll become the first major Republican casualty of the primary-happy conservative movement.

Bennett faced off against seven primary challengers last night, with Utah Republicans turning out for the caucuses in massive numbers. With full results yet to come in, there appears to be a real chance that Bennett will lose his spot on the ballot this November as he seeks reelection.

"Caucus turnout last night last night was unbelievable," Utah GOP Chairman Dave Hansen said. "It was at least double and could be even higher than that.."

Typically, Utah caucuses see a turnout of 30-35,000, Hansen said; last night's turnout was around 75,000, he guessed.

"I'll be honest with you, there was a lot of anti-Bennett sentiment there, depending on what area you went to," Hansen said. "I think [support[ was probably more everybody else than Bennett. If you want to divide it into the Bennett and the non-Bennett, it was non-Bennett."

That's a bad sign for the incumbent--or at least a sign that he's facing a legitimate threat.

Caucus results won't mean an outright victory for Bennett or any of his challengers: last night, Utahns simply elected delegates to the state GOP's May 8 nominating convention.

But if enough anti-Bennett delegates were elected, it could mean defeat for the incumbent senator. During the convention's final vote, the field will be narrowed to two candidates; if either gets more than 60% of delegates' votes, the primary process is over and the Republicans have their nominee. If not, a primary will be held June 22.

So if 60% oppose Bennett at the convention, it's possible those delegates will coalesce behind the top challenger--e.g., whoever makes it to the final round of voting.

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

"Our sense is that there was broad participation and there was also broad support for the senator," said Jim Bennett, Sen. Bennett's son and campaign manager, said of last night's caucuses.

Bennett, a  three-term senator with a lifetime 83.6 rating from the American Conservatives has drawn opposition from conservatives in Utah and in DC, as FreedomWorks and the Club for Growth have both opposed his reelection bid.

Bennett is no liberal, but conservatives have seen Utah--one of the reddest of the red states--as an opportunity to elect someone even more conservative, along the likes of a Tom Coburn or Jim DeMint. Conservatives have been irked by Bennett's support for the TARP bailout; his work with Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) on the Healthy Americans Act, the leading bipartisan health care proposal in the 110th Congress that included an individual mandate; and his support for a deficit-reduction commission.

Candidates will lobby delegates between now and the nominating convention.

"We go to all the counties, we hold events and as we go to those events we invite all the delegates," said Mike Lee campaign manager Dan Hauser.

It's about "finding out where they are and getting Mike in front of them," Hauser said.

Bennett--and all the other candidates--will be doing the same.

Thumbnail photo credit: Wikimedia Commons