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Meet the Tea Party Activists Who Defeated Bob Bennett

Bennett-480x321.jpg
Bennett-480x321.jpg

Sen. Robert Bennett (R-Utah) (EPA/ZUMAPRESS.com)

From Pennsylvania to Arizona, incumbent Republican senators are increasingly under siege from their right flanks, where Tea Party activists have mobilized to challenge every establishment candidate within charging distance. Tea Partiers rightfully took credit for Rand Paul’s recent upending of the Republican establishment in Kentucky. And they’re not done yet. Next on the list: longtime Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah).

[GOP1] The first electoral jolt signifying that times have changed came at the state Republican convention in Salt Lake City on May 8, where three-term senator Bob Bennett was forcefully knocked off the November ballot in two rounds of voting. So too were a number of other Republican incumbents deemed too moderate in style or substance by the convention’s 3,500 delegates.

Press accounts of Bennett’s defeat have generally focused on the state’s peculiar nominating system, in which an otherwise popular candidacy can be derailed at precinct-level caucuses that elect delegates to the closed party convention, from which only the top two candidates survive to face the voting public.

The state’s caucus-and-convention system, however, tells only half the story. Bennett and his fellow GOP casualties did not fall victim to Utah’s election system alone. Nor were they felled simply by some vague anti-incumbent mood. Rather, they were victims of a well-organized and increasingly dominant Tea Party coalition that over the last year has established a tightening grip on Utah’s Republican Party—and that has big plans for the rest of the country as well.

At the vanguard of this Beehive State conservative revolt is a states’ rights organization called the Patrick Henry Caucus (PHC). Along with better-known groups such as the 9.12 Project and Eagle Forum, the PHC mobilized enough activists at the precinct level to deny Bennett and a handful of others another election. Now they are preparing to do the same with Hatch.

“The Patrick Henry Caucus is leading the groups now dominating the conventions and determining who will run for the state legislature and national offices,” says Troy Williams, director of political programming at KRCL, a radio station in Salt Lake City. “They have effective control of the direction of the state party, and have a Mormon missionary zeal when it comes to spreading the gospel of states’ rights around the country.”

The Caucus was founded in May 2009 by five Republican state legislators united by their opposition to what they consider unconstitutional federal power as embodied in everything from the Department of Education to affirmative action laws. Since announcing itself to the world with a promotional video that looks like it was shot by an ex-intern of Jerry Bruckheimer, the group has emerged as a powerful force in Utah politics. Between 60 and 70 Utah government officials and representatives have signed up with the Caucus. The governor and attorney general, meanwhile, have attended meetings and spoken at Caucus-sponsored events. At the recent party convention, between one-third to one-half of delegates were PHC members.

“A large number of the delegates at convention belonged [to the Caucus],” says Stephen E. Sandstrom, a Utah state representative and founding member of the PHC. “Many others were sympathetic and have since joined. Our information booth was one of the most popular at the convention.”

Gayle Ruzicka, President of Eagle Forum Utah, predicts that “well over half” of the state legislature will be made up of PHC members by 2012.

With just $60,000 in the bank and occasional profile-boosting appearances on “Glenn Beck,” the group has established a national network of likeminded state legislators and activists. In September, the PHC will host a national states’ rights convention in Salt Lake City. “We’re inviting a broad spectrum of people and aiming for 20,000 participants,” says Carl Wimmer, a Utah state representative and PHC founder.

Many of the attendees will come from other Western states, eager to learn from Utah conservatives on the issue of attempting to wrest federal lands from Washington’s control.

“We get a lot of calls from groups in western states seeking advice about taking back our federal land through eminent domain,” says Wimmer. “In Utah, we have a long history of challenging the federal government, which owns 70 percent of state territory.”

In their first year, PHC-affiliated state legislators have emerged as the leading lights of the burgeoning states’ rights scene. Ken Ivory, a Utah PHC candidate who knocked out a long-time Republican state representative at the recent GOP convention, was a keynote speaker at first annual Tenth Amendment Summit in Atlanta. Through such events, the PHC has established working contacts with state legislators in 30 states, from North Dakota to New York.

“The goal has always been to organize states’ sovereignty activists nationwide. If we only fought health care and gun laws here in Utah, people would just dismiss us as ‘Oh, that’s just rightwing Utah,’” says Sandstrom, the Utah state representative and PHC founding member. “But if we get it done nationally, coordinating with like-minded people across the spectrum, we can truly have a huge impact.”

Some observers say the group is digging its own grave, and will not have a lasting impact, in Utah or anywhere else.

“The [Patrick Henry] Caucus is promoting leadership that is about banging its chest and pounding the desk,” says David Litvack, a five-term Democratic state representative from Salt Lake City. “There’s a huge disconnect. The further they push politics to the right, the more people are going to be looking to the Democrats as the mainstream party and the moderate option. They’re already creating divisiveness among Utah conservatives.”

For the founders of the Caucus—known among their local supporters as the “fab five”—the future is a busy one, full of promise.

“The number one goal for our second year is to become more organized nationwide,” says Wimmer. “You’ll probably see us going around the nation shoring up some of the Patrick Henry Caucus groups in other states. With so much success in such a short amount of time, we have to be careful about a letdown, especially after such a big victory as defeating Bob Bennett.”

Alexander Zaitchik is a freelance journalist in Brooklyn and the author of the new book “Common Nonsense: Glenn Beck and the Triumph of Ignorance.”

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