Update March 25th: Post updated to add a couple of subsequent references (in green) and to correct a couple of erroneous references.
The Utah Republican caucuses were held at various points throughout the Beehive State on March 23rd, 2010 in order to elect delegates to the state Republican convention on May 8th, and in the high-profile U.S. Senate race, two trends immediately emerged. First, anyone but Bennett. Second, Mike Lee (pictured at left) appears to be the most popular "anyone".
Comments to this Deseret News story and this KSL Channel 5 news story provide a good snapshot of the proceedings. Even more pertinent comments appear in this separate KSL story. In precinct after precinct, delegates critical of Bob Bennett took precedence over those favoring him, although there were a few precincts favoring Bennett. You'll also note that the greatest number of those opposing Bob Bennett are promoting Mike Lee as his successor, although some support for Cherilyn Eagar and Tim Bridgewater was expressed. Neither Merrill Cook nor any of the other last-minute challengers have been mentioned. The Deseret News also reports that at a Provo caucus gathering, a straw poll of attendees gave Bennett a slight edge over challenger Mike Lee, 38-34, with other candidates for the position scoring in single digits. Lee also led in a Utah Rising poll with 42 percent.
The "anyone-but-Bennett" sentiment was also apparent in Washington County and in Davis County as well, although Davis County was also preoccupied with picking a replacement for hot-tubbing ex-lawmaker Kevin Garn. A subsequent Salt Lake Tribune story published March 25th showed similar results in Logan, Centerville, West Jordan, Salt Lake City, Provo, Ogden, Holladay and Draper.
Bloggers who attended caucuses echo a similar message. Ms. Morality wrote, "I think we need representatives who are aggressive, articulate and unapologetically conservative. And while I am grateful for Senator Bennett's 18 years of service, I don't believe he is the type of spokesperson that we need right now. I think that Mike Lee, Tim Bridgewater and Cherilyn Eager are all good candidates for US Senate. In particular, I support Mike Lee, who I know to be engaging, and committed to conservative values, fiscal discipline and term limits. His knowledge of the Constitution can help shift the debate back to core Republican principles".
National Review Online wrote, "...the strongest and most frequently expressed sentiments were for dumping Sen. Bennett. Every state delegate won with a promise to NOT vote for Bennett. We have a few good candidates challenging Sen. Bennett, and former Alito supreme court clerk Mike Lee looks to have the most support at this time. NOT ONE person running for state delegate was willing to acknowledge that they were willing to even consider Bennett at the convention".
And Goates Notes, who was selected as a delegate, wrote, "The months of the buildup of my anger spilled out against Senator Bennett, who by the way, I have voted for three times in the past. I was careful to state my respect for him and his family, but then I let loose with my anger over his advocacy of the ill-advised TARP vote that opened the floodgates for the subsequent orgy of bailout bills that followed, capped by the palpable anger one could sense in the room about what happened yesterday in the successful passage of the Obama health care reform bill. Bennett may not have had hand in that House vote yesterday, but clearly he is being held accountable for his big spending habits by the voters in our precinct.
The faithful Republican heads in our meeting were all nodding up and down. I was enflamed and passionate. I couldn't help myself once I got going. And when it was enough, and I sensed I had said perhaps too much, I shut up and sat down. However, I left no doubts in anyone's mind in our precinct exactly what they were getting out of their state delegate, if elected.
There was a simple majority of my fellow citizens in our little precinct who felt as I did. I said simply, 'If you agree with me, then vote for me because I have every intention of voting for Mike Lee at the state convention, and you all deserve to know the position of your delegate. There is absolutely no chance that I will vote for Bob Bennett ever again.' I won".
Prestigious conservative blogger Holly Richardson finally weighed in on March 25th. She wrote, "Interestingly, in the district I attended – 22 precincts – the delegates favoring Bennett all spoke of his ability to bring home the bacon. They like his ability to earmark funds and benefit people in Utah. All but one were defeated".
All of these serve as distinct signs that Mike Lee is moving into the catbird seat as Bob Bennett's number one challenger. Nevertheless, Cherilyn Eagar and Tim Bridgewater remain viable candidates, while Merrill Cook and the other late entrants appear to be also-rans. Complete list of all filed candidates HERE.
Mike Lee is pleased with the strong turnout as well as the large number of delegates who have pledged to support him, but has wisely refrained from claiming victory yet. Tim Bridgewater posted a story on his website which does not mention him.
Nevertheless, it is still six weeks until the state nominating convention to be held in Salt Lake City on May 8th, and anyone who thinks Bob Bennett is dead is unduly optimistic. Bennett not only has 12 years experience in the U.S. Senate, but has a $4 million campaign war chest. And, unlike Chris Cannon, who personally was a major league asshole, Bennett remains a class act personally. So Bob Bennett will be a tough nut to crack.
But the six-week interregnum until the convention will allow sufficient time for one of Bennett's three principal challengers to become set apart as the premier challenger. If this happens, then partisans of the other candidates should unite behind that person at the convention to ensure that, at the very least, Bob Bennett is forced into a primary fight on June 22nd. Any candidate getting 60 percent or more of the delegate vote at the convention automatically becomes the party's nominee; Bennett cannot be permitted to become the Republican nominee in this fashion.