Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News
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SALT LAKE CITY — Dueling views over Utah's senior U.S. senator dominated Thursday's GOP caucus meetings, where stunning turnout pitted packed rooms of delegates against each other over Orrin Hatch's fate.
Republican faithful practically mobbed meeting places like school cafeterias, gymnasiums and homes, with observers noting that in some cases the precinct meetings easily attracted eight, nine or even 10 times the attendance of years past.
“I am amazed by the number of citizens who took action and attended their neighborhood caucus tonight," said state party Chairman Thomas Wright. "Our preliminary estimates are a statewide turnout of at least 125,000 Republicans and as high as 200,000. Voters were heard loud and clear tonight.”
Inspired by a concentrated, well-moneyed tea party campaign to secure Hatch's ouster, the six-term senator responded with rival urgency, delving into his own war chest to fire back with an army of his supporters dispatched to numerous precincts statewide, where 4,000 delegates were elected.
At Centerville Junior High School, for example, a motion made in the precinct meeting prior to voting required anyone nominated as a delegate to state their opinion about 77-year-old Hatch.
"I think Brother Hatch has had a lot of time in office, and I'm predisposed not to vote for him," said Jim Peterson, a state delegate nominee in Centerville's Precinct 8.
"I do not support Hatch," said Scott Sly, another state delegate nominee. "He's been there long enough."
Doug Cummings, the precinct's chairman and a county delegate for the past two years, was among the minority of nominees who declared their support for keeping Hatch in Washington, D.C.
But Cummings was also the top vote-getter following the first round of secret balloting, earning him one of the precinct's three state delegate spots.
"The name of the game in Washington is experience and seniority," Cummings said. "Utah has an opportunity to have the chairman of the Finance Committee. I support Orrin Hatch."
Roughly 115 people packed into a classroom to select delegates in the precinct — "by far the most we've ever had," said Paul Cutler, the precinct's vice chairman for the past two years.
Cutler, also a state delegate nominee, voiced his support for former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist, R-Bountiful, a Hatch opponent.
Karl Hiller, another state delegate nominee, used his one-minute of floor time to lash out at FreedomWorks, the Washington, D.C.-based tea party organization that has mounted a campaign to oust Hatch.
Even those caucus participants clinging to indecision over Hatch were determined to participate in the process, still stung by having their voice silenced at the state GOP convention two years ago when then-incumbent Sen. Bob Bennett was abruptly eliminated from contention.
"I'm feeling a little undecided, even right now," Tanya Lewis said. "It's hard to advocate giving up all that seniority that we have in the senate with Hatch there."
Lewis, president of the Women's Republican Club of Salt Lake, attended the caucus meeting at South Jordan's Elk Ridge Middle School in hopes of being selected as a state delegate. It was her first experience with the Utah caucus system since moving here from Nevada.
It was clear in this meeting that views on education or taxes were easily trumped by questions aimed at determining how the potential delegate planned to vote in the Hatch contest at state GOP convention. While there were strong feelings clearly against or in favor of Hatch, a large number of the participants were caught somewhere in the middle.
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