SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A month after being chosen to represent their neighborhoods, Republican delegates in Utah are set to decide the fate of U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch and his challengers during Saturday’s state convention.
Utah’s unique system of nominating candidates places those people in a powerful position – some might say too powerful – to determine who will likely represent the state in the Senate for the next six years. But delegates who have spent the last month being wooed in restaurants, backyards and community centers describe the process as democracy at its purest.
“It’s the epitome of the American process,” said Tom Chapmen, 63, a longtime delegate from South Jordan. He said he was chosen by his neighbors because they trusted him to make a sound decision, but he also planned to follow up with the caucus attendees to inform them of his choice. “Even at this level, I have a responsibility to these people. It’s one of the reasons that Utah is the best-run state.”
This weekend, Hatch and his Republican challengers will place their fate in the hands of party faithful representing their neighborhoods at the state convention. No other state has anything like it.
Two years ago, the state’s system for selecting candidates grabbed national attention when delegates fueled by the tea party movement toppled three-term Sen. Robert Bennett, who was actually leading in the polls among GOP voters statewide prior to the convention. The defeat gave Hatch an early warning about the challenge that awaited him and he is not expected to suffer from a similar outcome as he seeks a seventh term in office.
Unlike many states, Utah doesn’t have a required primary for races with multiple candidates. To win the nomination, a candidate only needs to secure votes from 60 percent or more of the 4,000 delegates who were chosen during neighborhood caucus meetings in March.
Anything less than 60 percent of the ballots cast and the top two finishers advance to a June 26 primary.
In all, 10 candidates are in the field. Each will give a speech and then delegates will conduct a round of voting. As candidates are eliminated, the delegates can choose to support somebody else or even forego further voting.
Many delegates take their job seriously, spending hours meeting with candidates in multiple races and dissecting the targeted mailings that swamp their mailbox. They also take pride in representing their neighborhood by making informed decisions.
“It’s not just the candidate’s speech,” said Dwight Stringham, 50, a five-time delegate from Centerville, Utah. “It’s asking questions and talking to them after an event. You can really get a personal impression.”
Critics argue the system is inherently flawed because 4,000 people are choosing a party nominee that doesn’t always reflect the mainstream Republican. After Bennett’s loss, a coalition led by former Gov. Mike Leavitt and other party leaders called for changes that would provide a way for candidates to force a primary outside of the delegate vote if a candidate could gather enough signatures.
Leavitt explained that the convention system worked for him. He was elected three times to serve as governor, but he said that dwindling voter turnout has led him to the conclusion that the system needs to be changed. In the 1980s, the state was a national leader in voter participation. Now it’s near the bottom.
“You just don’t have people engaged with the candidates and you just don’t have the broad participation that you should have,” Leavitt said.
Supporters of the Utah system claim it allows candidates with minimal name recognition and little money to compete. It also means a candidate can make up ground quickly, since challengers only need to convince a few hundred delegates to vote against Hatch.
But Hatch has spent millions of dollars on the campaign, which he devoted heavily to recruiting supporters to attend the neighborhood caucus meetings. Since those meetings, his focus has been the same as every other candidate: meeting delegates face-to-face.
“These delegates always get flooded with an intense campaign experience over just a few weeks, which is relatively cheap” for candidates, said Quin Monson, the director of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University. “But Hatch has raised it to a new level, with a campaign that is unprecedented in organization and scope.”
Polls of delegates by campaigns, activist groups and think tanks have consistently placed Hatch on the threshold of securing the nomination Saturday. A poll by The Salt Lake Tribune released Wednesday showed similar results, with 62 percent support for Hatch but a 4.9 percent margin of error.
Finishing a distant second in the polls is former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist, whose support was at 20 percent in the Tribune poll. But Liljenquist and the other notable challenger, state Rep. Chris Herrod, have continually argued that Hatch’s support is soft and they are optimistic that they can persuade delegates to give them a shot in a primary.
Associated Press writer Kevin Freking contributed to this report.