OGDEN, Utah-- Two years ago, Republican delegates in Utah stunned the country by voting 17-year Republican Sen. Robert Bennett out of office in a second round of balloting at their state convention.
But don't expect those kinds of fireworks this Saturday.
There's long been talk that the tea party would once again help mount a successful ouster of a Republican they believe to be too moderate at this year's Utah convention. Their target: 36-year Senate veteran Orrin Hatch. But this week, even Hatch's challengers aren't talking about a Bennett-style blowout.
"This is not in the bag," challenger Dan Liljenquist, a former state senator, explained to Yahoo News Wednesday night in an interview between his town hall meetings held here at the home of local supporters Sean and Catherine Slatter. "We've been outspent 30 to 1 on this race." Liljenquist, who is supported by tea party groups, said that no Utah campaign in history has had a candidate spend $6 million prior to the March caucus, when convention delegates are elected.
And that's not the only difference between today and 2010.
Liljenquist noted that unlike Bennett, whose challengers took him somewhat by surprise at the 2010 convention, Hatch has had "two years to prepare" for this race. Given his longevity in the Senate, Hatch also possesses a stronger degree of name recognition than Bennett. And perhaps most importantly, there is no national catalyst working against Hatch, as there was against Bennett in 2010.
Obamcare passed just two days prior to Utah's March caucuses in 2010. Even though Bennett opposed the president's health care law, Liljenquist and his team believe that its passage drastically altered the mood of the primary, turning the tide against Bennett.
"We had a whole bunch of new people turn out on caucus night who were angry with the direction of the federal government and I think that that wave kind of overwhelmed Senator Bennett in that election," Liljenquist said. Delegates elected during that caucus participated in the convention that resulted in Bennett's defeat.
Under Utah's electoral system, candidates will compete this Saturday in an instant-runoff format where the lowest placing candidates will be eliminated in ballot rounds and delegates for those losing candidates will be free to support a new candidate or abstain in subsequent rounds.
If at any time, one candidate receives 60 percent or more of the vote, he or she will instantly become the nominee. Absent that, the top two finishers will advance to a June 26 primary—a scenario Liljenquist and his team say they are confident will be a Hatch versus Liljenquist matchup in a primary showdown two months from now.
In addition to Liljenquist, who polls as Hatch's top opponent and is strongly backed by FreedomWorks, a grassroots organization that advocates for lower taxes and less government, there are seven additional candidates as well as Rep. Chris Herrod who will compete Saturday for the Senate nomination.
And if the publicly available polls are to be believed-- including those from Hatch pollster Dan Jones and Associates-- Hatch is within striking distance Saturday of that magic 60 percent threshold necessary to avoid a primary. But Liljenquist argues otherwise.