Utah's caucus system has come under fire since 2010, when three-term Sen. Bob Bennett was defeated at the convention by a tea party surge. Even people who supported the system were concerned then about the ability of such smaller offshoot groups to seize control and direct the outcome.
This year, tea party groups such as FreedomWorks, which has spent more than $600,000 on anti-Hatch mailings and ads, hope to unseat Hatch in a similar fashion. Their chances were dimmed when turnout at the caucuses more than doubled, especially because many of the new attendees were there because of what happened with Bennett.
"The benefit of the caucus system is that it designates people who will do their job and listen. But I didn't like what happened to Bennett, which is one of the reasons I got involved," said Brian Grow, 28, a first-time delegate from Layton who is tentatively supporting Hatch. "It was frustrating to see him ousted by a fringe group that doesn't represent my views."
In Utah, candidates and interest groups are forced to organize at the grassroots level, which can give power to those who may not reflect a majority of the party. That certainly happened in 2010, both with tea party Republicans knocking off Bennett as well as environmentalists who forced Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson into a primary that he easily won.
Defenders of the Utah system argue a key advantage is that it reduces the influence of money in a race.
Hatch's spending — as well as more than $1 million from outside groups that funded television ads and brochures aimed at keeping the senator in office — certainly helped drive supporters to caucus meetings.
The outcome of Saturday's convention now comes down to candidate performance, likability, and just how many hands were shaken and minds changed.
"We start with our neighbors, and our views come up from the neighborhood and are carried to the convention," said Doug Smith, 59, a Hatch supporter from Bountiful. "If you want to have your voice heard, this is the system for it."
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