SALT LAKE CITY — A national tea party group bent on ousting Orrin Hatch from the U.S. Senate has issued marching orders to Utahns attending Republican caucus meetings Thursday, including some that are in violation of state party rules.
Mailers sent by Washington, D.C.-based FreedomWorks to like-minded Utahns provide would-be delegates with a game plan to help them get elected.
In addition to offering basic suggestions, such as arriving early and sitting in the front of the room, the mailer encourages delegate hopefuls to skip pre-meetings — which include the Pledge of Allegiance, a prayer and review of rules — and go straight to caucus rooms to get a better seat.
FreedomWorks also instructs delegate nominees to "place a flier on every seat, telling a little bit about yourself and why you want to be a state delegate," and to "stand at the door and hand out fliers" as people arrive.
The group also advises its supporters to get nominated for a leadership role, even if the position isn't wanted, because it will give that person a chance to speak in front of the group. After speaking, that person can withdraw as a leadership candidate and "tell the group (they) really want to be a state delegate," according to the mailer.
Utah Republican Party officials said those practices violate caucus rules and seek to manipulate the process.
Thomas Wright, chairman for the Utah Republican Party, sent an email this week to county GOP leaders, as well as precinct chairs and caucus hosts, to clarify caucus rules and procedures "so each caucus attendee is treated fairly and with respect."
"Recently, several groups have sent information to their supporters with misleading information on how caucuses should be conducted," Wright's email states. "Every caucus attendee is free to support the candidates and issues of their choice, but as leaders we can't allow the rules to be violated or bent and thereby become complicit in promoting any outside agenda."
Wright said the email "was not specifically targeted at FreedomWorks," though it tackles the issues of attending the pre-meetings, distributing fliers and literature, and running for precinct leadership positions.
"I don't think anybody's doing it on purpose," he said. "We just don't want anybody interfering with our meetings. These are our meetings. There's an appropriate and proper way for outside groups to participate. And when they encourage people to do things in an inappropriate way, we're going to speak out."
Russ Walker, FreedomWorks' vice president for political and grassroots campaigns, said the caucus packets were sent to Utahns who had committed to the group to seek election as a delegate and were not intended to circumvent any rules.
Walker said the packets were sent out before the rules for the 2012 GOP caucuses were finalized, resulting in confusion.
"This is much to do about nothing," he said. "I think everyone in Utah is far more concerned about how Orrin Hatch votes than something like this. … At the end of the day, what voters in Utah want to know about are the issues and how candidates are going to vote on them."
In his email, Wright instructs leaders of caucuses where more than one precinct meets at the same location and participants are asked to gather as a large group for a pre-meeting to "please require all attendees to be present for these important meetings."
"Caucus attendees should not be in the classrooms before their caucus starts," the email reads.
Wright also stated that "it is not appropriate to place fliers or other literature on chairs or pass them out at the door" at precinct caucus meetings.
The practice of seeking a leadership position and then withdrawing after having a chance to speak to the group, Wright said, also "is not appropriate."
"This is a dishonest tactic to gain favor with the other attendees so they will have a better chance of being elected as a delegate," the email states. "In short, attendees should not run for positions they have no desire to be elected to."
The Utah Republican Party has spent $300,000 this year in its campaign to boost attendance at caucus meetings. Roughly 85 percent of precinct chairs and caucus hosts have been trained by state party officials, Wright said.
"We've been 100 percent committed to having the best caucuses we've ever had in the Utah Republican Party," he said. "We've dispelled a lot of myths and false practices that have been going on in the precincts. … We want to have great meetings where there's an accurate outcome of the people who attend."
In Utah's caucus system, delegates selected at the neighborhood meetings attend party conventions and cast votes to select candidates to run in primary and general elections. Democrats met Tuesday with Republicans scheduled to gather in meetings at 7 p.m. Thursday.
"This is the election process in the state of Utah," Walker said. "The caucus is where that happens; the convention is where that happens; and if it goes to a primary, the primary is where that happens."
FreedomWorks has taken aim at Hatch, the six-term GOP senator who turns 78 next week, spending $615,000 on its "Retire Hatch" campaign.
"We want to see someone who actually respects constitutionally restrained government in that office," Walker said. Hatch has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in advertising to battle the effort to oust him.
Hatch has said a seventh term in the U.S. Senate would be his last.