Senate candidates prepare to court 4,000 delegates

Published: Friday, March 16 2012 7:00 p.m. MDT

Debbie Matheson, center, introduces herself as a delegate candidate during a GOP caucus meeting at Lone Peak High School in Highland. Thousands turned out at their Republican Party neighborhood caucus meetings around Utah, Thursday, March 15, 2012. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News) Debbie Matheson, center, introduces herself as a delegate candidate during a GOP caucus meeting at Lone Peak High School in Highland. Thousands turned out at their Republican Party neighborhood caucus meetings around Utah, Thursday, March 15, 2012. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — Although Utah's Republican U.S. Senate candidates are running to represent all of the state's more than 2.8 million people, for the next month, they'll only be focused on Dave Johnson and 3,999 others.

What makes the 41-year-old Johnson unique is that he was selected to be a delegate Thursday by his South Jordan neighbors at a Republican caucus meeting, one of 2,000 held statewide. The 4,000 delegates elected at the caucuses will now be courted by candidates and campaigns until the state Republican convention in Sandy on April 21, when those same delegates will select their party's nominee for Congress, U.S. Senate, governor, attorney general and other statewide offices.

"What I expect over the next several weeks is (Sen. Orrin) Hatch and others will be calling and asking me to hear their views," said Johnson, a first-time delegate who is committed to Hatch but is willing to hear what the other candidates have to offer.

The relatively small group that decides who the party's nominee will be was selected from an estimated 125,000 people who crammed into schools and homes across the state to hear campaign speeches and cast their ballots for delegates. It's a huge increase from the 2010 caucus when an estimated 58,000 people attended, said Thomas Wright, chairman of the Utah Republican Party.

Wright attributed the surge in attendance to a combination of factors, including Americans being "fed up with President Obama," the LDS Church asking leaders encouraging participation and an unprecedented advertising campaign.

"We've done so many things that we've never done before," he said.

The party distributed 240,000 door hangers and 20,000 yard signs, some 15,000 phone calls were made, television ads aired and multiple billboards lined I-15 promoting the event, Wright said.

"I think the more people you have, the more indicative of the population it is," he said, explaining the upside of high participation in the political process.

The unprecedented effort came two years after Utah's unique caucus system was attributed to the stunning defeat of U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett at the state convention by angry delegates.

Hatch's campaign, which worked for months to ensure supporters attended their caucus meetings, said its efforts paid off to help secure the GOP nomination and avoid a devisive primary, or worse, elimination by delegates at convention.

"It was a very good night for the senator," said Dave Hansen, Hatch's campaign manager.

Hansen said he believes voters realize Hatch has "done a very good job," and Utahns understood the roll seniority plays in Congress "whether they like it or not."

"I think our campaign has done very well getting the message out," he said.

Holly Richardson, campaign manager for Hatch's chief challenger, former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist, said claims of how well Hatch did Thursday were "overblown."

"A lot of people are undecided on this Senate race," she said.

Richardson said the campaign has about 100 meetings scheduled before the convention and Liljenquist plans to meet with delegates and convince them "it's time," as his campaign slogan says, for Hatch to leave the office he's occupied for 36 years.

Hatch, who would be running for his seventh term, has said he will not run for re-election after 2012. Still, Liljenquist and conservative groups are working to oust him. The tea party organization FreedomWorks has spent $600,000 so far to unseat Hatch.

Some political observers say the political landscape has changed in the past two years, making Hatch is less vulnerable than Bennett was.

Kirk Jowers, director of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics and Federal Relations, said from what he's heard, "universally, the crowds were very pro-Hatch."

"At (my caucus), only people who supported Hatch were elected," he said.

Jowers said he noticed Republican caucuses this year were "more pragmatic, less passionate."

"In 2010, when people were moderate or pro-Bennett, they were booed," he said. "2010 caucuses came very shortly after Obamacare was passed. ... They wanted blood."

More representative caucuses and tempered voters weren't the only thing helping Hatch, however. Print ads and radio and television spots with GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney endorsing Utah's senior senator appeared to be a silver bullet for some voters.

Hatch campaign fliers available at caucus meetings featured a photo of Romney and his endorsement.

"When I'm President, I'll need Orrin Hatch as Senate Finance Chair to help me restore America as a land of opportunity and prosperity," the flier read.

It was a message that resonated with Eric Wilkinson, a candidate for delegate for the Cedar Hills 5 precinct.

"They can work hand-in-hand," he said Thursday at his caucus.

Romney also endorsed Bennett in 2010 before convention. But Jowers, a Romney campaign adviser, said Romney's endorsement wasn't as relevant in 2010 as it is today, when he is the front-runner for the GOP nomination.

"Utah Republicans are all in for Romney, and I think they take Romney seriously when he says he could use a powerful friend in the Senate," Jowers said.

E-mail: hschwarz@desnews.com

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