Republican's exit could clear the way for Tea Party vs. GOP incumbent Bennett

Conservatives have turned to Florida as the central front in their battle with the GOP establishment, but the battle for the Republican Senate nomination in Utah could emerge as the real Tea Party contest.

State Attorney General Mark Shurtleff’s exit from the race last week paved the way for other candidates to emerge. Though none of them hold statewide offices, or even local ones, they do appear to stand a better chance of luring conservative activists.

ADVERTISEMENT
Those activists happen to be the group Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) has problems with, and they play an outsized role in the nominating process.

Shurtleff had name recognition and was slowly assembling the money to make a serious race against Bennett, but sources say his issue positions weren’t quite doing it for the conservative crowd.

“As time went on, there were more questions about how strong a conservative Shurtleff is,” Utah political strategist Lavarr Webb said.

Tea Party organizer David Kirkham said the attorney general’s candidacy was a non-starter.

“The Tea Party people, by and large, were not supportive of Shurtleff because of his views on immigration,” Kirkham said. “I don’t think they would have voted for him.”

Kirkham said the movement will be vetting candidates over the next two months, with the hopes of uniting around one in January. Before that, they will be training potential delegates for the GOP nominating convention in May, when the delegates will either choose a nominee or narrow the primary field to two candidates.

Shurtleff left the race Nov. 4, citing his daughter’s mental health problems. Since then, attorney Mike Lee and wealthy businessman Fred Lampropoulos have emerged, and sources expect them to be formidable opponents, should they run.

Former congressional candidate Tim Bridgewater is already in the race, and Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), who might be the strongest of all, continues to keep his options open.

A well-placed Utah GOP source said the conservative movement could really have an impact in the state, especially if the Tea Party movement, the 9/12ers and the Patrick Henry Caucus can settle on one candidate.

“This is tailor-made for those folks,” the source said. “This is a state where those people can make a difference, and quite honestly, they do not like Bennett.”

Another group that could join the cause is the Club for Growth. After endorsing Marco Rubio over Gov. Charlie Crist this week in Florida’s GOP Senate primary, the group will continue to monitor Utah.

The Club has already contacted potential delegates several times and run $100,000 worth of ads against Bennett’s healthcare plan.

But executive director David Keating said it is more apt to wait and see what happens at the convention. At that point, it could make a move in the June primary.

“I would imagine we’d make a decision about what the scenarios might be coming out of the convention and be ready to act immediately if the right situation presents itself,” Keating said. “And that’s something that might play to our strength, because we’re able to raise money very quickly.”

The conservatives don’t yet have a consensus favorite among the potential Bennett challengers. Whoever runs will vie for the party’s nomination at a multi-ballot state convention, where the field will be narrowed to two, unless one candidate gets 60 percent of the delegates and wins the nomination outright. If not, the two candidates would go to a closed primary, meaning only registered Republicans can vote in it.

Lee has already met with hundreds of the state’s delegates during a constitutional law presentation he has been delivering around the state. As the son of renowned Mormon leader and former Brigham Young University President Rex Lee, the younger Lee is the wildcard in the race. Sources expect him to run.

Lampropoulos was a candidate for governor for 2004, when he used $2 million of his personal wealth and nearly made it to a primary with Gov. Jon Huntsman. He told The Hill he is polling the race and talking to GOP activists, and that he expects to make a decision in the next week.

“Running against an incumbent is not an easy thing to do, and Sen. Bennett is a friend,” Lampropoulos said. “But we need a change.”

Bridgewater nearly won the GOP congressional nomination to face Rep. Jim Matheson (D-Utah) at the 2002 and 2004 conventions. Though he went on to lose both primaries, he is still seen as a delegate favorite.

Chaffetz, a freshman congressman, hasn’t ruled out the race yet, and sources suggest he is still a real possibility. He came within a hair of 60 percent at the convention last year against incumbent Rep. Chris Cannon (R-Utah), and then went on to beat Cannon in the primary.

“I think he’s must be seriously looking at it,” said a Utah GOP consultant. “And I think if he got in, he would take 60 percent of delegates.”

Chaffetz isn’t openly talking about the race and said he’s focused on his work in the House. But he isn’t ruling it out just yet.

“I doubt I’m going to run for Senate, but I’m not ready to close the door yet,” he told The Hill.