Sen. Bob Bennett's re-election bid could be in serious trouble, based on reports of widespread opposition to the incumbent at Tuesday's Republican caucuses.
While not definitive, interviews with a dozen caucus-goers around the state reflected a familiar theme: Support was not coalescing behind any Bennett challenger, but there was a strong "anybody-but-Bennett" sentiment.
Jim Bennett, the senator's son and campaign spokesman, said the campaign is optimistic and believes that many Bennett supporters got elected as delegates, but may not have made as much noise as the anti-Bennett crowd.
"We're waiting for the hard data to come in, but we are encouraged by what we've seen so far," he said. "We've heard plenty of anecdotal evidence that Senator Bennett has done very well in parts of the state and we've also heard there is a very large contingent of people who are genuinely open to deciding who they are going to support."
Over the next six weeks, Bennett and his challengers will fan out to solidify support from the newly elected crop of 3,500 delegates. Bennett would need to get support from 60 percent of the field to avoid a June primary and more than 40 percent to avoid being bounced at convention.
Bennett is being challenged by attorney Mike Lee, businessman Tim Bridgewater, conservative activist Cherilyn Eagar, former congressman Merrill Cook and a handful of lesser-known hopefuls.
The degree with which people were frustrated with Bennett was surprising, said Ryan Frandsen, who attended his caucus in Provo.
Frandsen worked on Rep. Chris Cannon's campaign in 2008 and said there was clearly a sense of frustration in that election, but if it was just bubbling through the surface then, it has erupted into a volcano this year.
Cannon barely survived the Republican convention in '08 and was drubbed in the Republican primary that year by upstart Jason Chaffetz. But it's not just the conservative activists who are frustrated this year, he said.
The far right is "still angry, but some of that anger has bled into the mainstream as well," Frandsen said. "It's not a very favorable position for Senator Bennett."
Those who attended caucuses in Logan, Centerville, West Jordan, Salt Lake City, Provo, Ogden, Holladay and Draper reported similar results.
"I didn't hear anyone voice an opinion in favor of Bennett," Scott Turner said of his packed caucus meeting in West Jordan. "People generally had a feeling ... that it's time for us to get somebody that remembers Utah and isn't so caught up in everything in Washington."
Tyler Riggs, a first-time caucus-goer in Logan, said that the delegates elected from his caucus were willing to consider any of the candidates in the Senate race -- except for Bennett.
BenJoe Markland, who was elected as precinct chairman at his South Ogden caucus, said a lot of people didn't know who the challengers to Bennett were. "In the end, they just didn't want Bob."
Markland said people felt like Bennett had broken his promise to only serve two terms. A few who supported him argued that Bennett's seniority in Congress was valuable.
Around the state, attendance at the caucuses was reportedly through the roof, as Republicans packed into more-than-standing-room-only meetings.
"It was a huge turnout," said Utah Republican Party Chairman Dave Hansen. "My guess is it's going to be two to three times the normal turnout."
Typically between 30,000 and 35,000 attend the caucus meetings he said. This year, he said the number could reach 75,000.
Quin Monson, associate director for the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University, attended a caucus and the turnout was remarkable, but "people respond more when they're feeling under siege."
But he said there may have been more support for Bennett than was apparent.
"The people who I saw who were anti-Bennett were the most vocal, but I think there was a group of delegates in our caucus and probably at other caucuses who were, if not pro-Bennett, were not antagonistic," said Monson, "but they were a little intimidated by the vehemence of the anti-Bennett crowd."
Bob Bennett (i)
Scott N Bradley
Thousands of Republican delegates will choose the party's U.S. Senate nominee at the state GOP Convention on May 8. If any candidate gets 60 percent of the delegate vote, he or she clinches the ballot spot. Otherwise, the top two vote getters go to a June primary.