SALT LAKE CITY — Alyson Heyrend has been around Utah politics for a long time, first as a newspaper and TV reporter, then a public activist, and now as a staffer for U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah.
But she was not expecting the reception she got at Skyline High School last month.
"There was shouting," she said. "There was booing."
At least unhappy Democratic caucus attendees didn't throw anything.
Supporters of Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, found the same thing at many GOP neighborhood party mass meetings. Those speaking in favor of the long-time senator were heckled. In fact, the crowd booed even at the mention of Bennett's name.
"He's been there long enough. It's time for him to go. He's the king of pork," said Karen Barton, who was elected as a state GOP delegate from her West Valley City precinct. As she blasted Bennett, the 14 other Republicans attending the caucus shook their head in agreement.
No one at that precinct meeting defended Bennett, or any other incumbent for that matter. Instead, they asked their delegates to do what they could to get rid of incumbents and ensure term limits.
Such anger is playing out in towns and party conventions around Utah this year.
At the caucus meeting at Skyline High School last month, Barton promised not to vote for Bennett in the May 8 state convention, although she said she didn't know which of his challengers she would support.
For Bennett and Matheson what's even more troubling is that such opposition is coming not from opposing parties, but from their own party members.
There are anyone-but-Bennett, anyone-but-Matheson websites and Facebook pages. Comments on blogs and media news stories are peppered with complaints — many from the incumbents' own party members — saying Bennett is not conservative enough, or that Matheson isn't liberal enough.
Utah conservatives have taken out after their own before.
Remember the 1988 anti-tax revolt?
Prodded on by talk radio hosts, thousands of residents unhappy with tax hikes adopted by then-GOP Gov. Norm Bangerter rallied at the state Capitol to call for change. Anti-taxers filed for office. Bangerter's re-election hung in the balance.
But in the end Bangerter won a second term. Few legislators were defeated and taxes — in an improving economy — were cut.
For all the smoke, the flames dwindled and went out.
Is 2010 in Utah going to be any different?
Tea party organizers and 9.12ers say yes.
At a Tax Day rally earlier this month, Davis County 9.12 activist Darcy Van Orden said Utahns in support of her group's goals, namely ending deficit spending, downsizing government and asserting states' rights, were going to be a factor this election season.
"People are fed up with the situation we're in, and they're going to do something about it," she said. "Many of the people here today aren't just rally attendees, they're also delegates."
Van Orden's assertion is backed by findings of a new Deseret News and KSL TV poll, run in conjunction with the Utah Foundation and University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.
Of more than 525 Utah Republican delegates polled, 55 percent said they supported the tea party movement and 9/12 project. Of general Republican voters, 46 percent back the two conservative movements, Dan Jones & Associates found. The poll has a plus or minus 4.17 percent error margin.
The 55 percent tea party support among GOP state delegates gives statistical heft to local tea party organizers' claim that "we have taken over" the grassroots control of the Utah Republican Party.
Many Utahns, especially some conservatives, are angry at Democratic President Barack Obama, the Democratic Congress, and even federal GOP incumbents who are accused of being, at best, asleep at the switch, and at worst, big government co-conspirators.
When Republican delegates and non-delegates were asked in the Jones survey if the country is headed in the right direction, they responded with a resounding no. Some 82 percent of GOP delegates, and 66 percent of non-delegate Republican voters said the country is headed in the wrong direction.
Van Orden, the 9.12 activist, said that while blame for the current national debt is borne by both parties, one U.S. senator deserves special consideration.
"We want Bob Bennett out, there's no question about that," she said. "He's got to go. He brokered (the auto and bank bailouts) and, as far as I'm concerned, that's the act that opened the floodgates on all these bailouts."
One Salt Lake County delegate, Michael Jefferson, said he was personally ready to see some new faces at the federal level.
"I think there needs to be a turnover," he said. "If there's one good thing happening now because of dissatisfaction, it's that people are getting involved."
Utah Democratic delegates and non-delegates polled by the Deseret News and KSL were considerably more optimistic than their GOP counterparts about the direction of the country. Only 5 percent of delegates and 2 percent of non-delegates felt the country was headed in the somewhat/completely wrong direction.
That partisan divide reflects a national disparity unveiled in a Pew Research Center report released last week. Pew found that while national trust in the federal government is near an all-time low overall, Republicans are much less trusting currently than Democrats. Pew reported just over 10 percent of Republicans registering trust in the government right now with Democrats coming in a bit above 30 percent.
Pew also noted that the public's hostility toward the government likely favors Republicans in this fall's election, and depicted the tea party movement as a "wild card."
While 1988 was a state revolt, Bangerter's problems didn't slip over into congressional races. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, won an easy re-election, as did then-Rep. Wayne Owens, a Democrat.
And Utah tea party supporters are finding friends in state government this year — GOP Gov. Gary Herbert doesn't fear the May 8 state Republican Convention.
Most state Democratic legislators and Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon, who is running for governor, have clear paths to their party nominations.
Most GOP legislators, aside from a few personal scandals, are looking at a good election year in 2010. With around two dozen bills and resolutions on state's rights passing the Legislature, conservatives are feeling their oats.35 comments on this story
U.S. Reps. Rob Bishop in the 1st District and Jason Chaffetz in the 3rd District also don't see intraparty challengers or problems with their party's base.
But Bennett and Matheson are different, and likely will be fighting for their political lives.
CONTRIBUTING: Lee Davidson