Meet the Tea Party Activists Who Defeated Bob Bennett

The Patrick Henry Caucus: Utah States’ Rights Group With National Ambitions

May 21, 2010

From Pennsylvania to Arizona, incumbent Republican senators are increasingly under siege from their right  ... And they’re not done yet. Next on the list: longtime Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah).

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. ...


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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