SALT LAKE CITY — Republican candidates in Utah are making a final push Wednesday to convince supporters to attend their neighborhood caucus meetings and hopefully lay the foundation for convention success.
But those candidates understand last-minute efforts mean very little in Utah's unique nominating process. Instead, the all-important delegates are won or lost in the months prior to the meetings.
Turnout at the Republican caucus meetings on Thursday is expected to jump from the approximately 60,000 voters statewide who went in 2010, as party officials have been advertising them for weeks and urging all eligible voters to attend. Those efforts have been buoyed by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose leaders have told their members — Mormons make-up about 70 percent of the state's population — to participate in the political process, regardless of party affiliation.
Democrats met in caucus meetings Tuesday night and had exceptional attendance, said Jim Dabakis, state party chairman. That likely bodes well for Republicans, who are the dominant party in the state.
"Our Democrats, independents, and more than a few disenchanted Republicans turned out in force," Dabakis said in a news release.
The gatherings represent the first step in Utah's unique system of nominating political candidates. Republicans at the neighborhood caucuses Thursday will elect 4,000 delegates to next month's state convention, while Democrats selected 2,500 state delegates. Both parties will hold state conventions April 21.
If a candidate wins at least 60 percent of the delegate vote at convention, they become the party's nominee. Otherwise, the top two vote-getters move on to a primary June 26.
Republicans have the majority of high-profile races this year, most notably U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch's attempt to win a seventh term. There are also wide-open contests for the open 2nd congressional district and a new 4th congressional district.
Hatch has been preparing for years for this challenge, especially after Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah, was ousted at the convention in 2010. The campaign and dozens of supporters are recruiting delegates who will support his nomination at the convention.
"We're trying to get people to the caucuses who will run for delegates and support those who are running for delegates," said Dave Hansen, the campaign manager for Hatch.
Leading the charge against Hatch is tea party affiliate, FreedomWorks, which has spent more than $475,000 on their effort. The organization's super PAC has mailed a 44-page brochure critical of Hatch to some 37,000 potential caucus participants.
Among those seeking to unseat Hatch is former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist and state Rep. Chris Herrod. Both have focused for months on delegate recruitment by hosting meetings around the state.
Liljenquist said despite Hatch's efforts, the increased turnout at the caucuses will be from younger voters who are not impressed by years of service or seniority.
"The participation of the younger generation has been low, but they're getting involved now," Liljenquist said. "They're not buying into the message that the world is ending if Hatch isn't reelected."
Josh Loftin can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/joshloftin.