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Both Hatch and Lugar may have learned from their colleagues’ experience during the 2010 cycle and may be reacting to the very different primary systems in their states.
In Indiana, a crowded Senate GOP primary during the 2010 cycle meant former Sen. Dan Coats, who is unpopular among tea party activists and seen as an establishment candidate, came out the victor with just 39 percent of the vote. Tea party supporters split their vote between the four other candidates, and second-place finisher Marlin Stutzman, now a Congressman, got 29 percent of the vote.
Since Indiana doesn’t require a primary winner to reach a certain threshold, Coats sailed through and easily won the general election in November. Lugar may be hoping for the same results.
Yet tea party activists in Indiana say they learned from their mistake. Greg Fettig, a leader of Hoosiers for Conservative Senate, a tea-party-affiliated umbrella group whose only goal is to defeat Lugar in 2012, said they hope to unite around one candidate this time. He said much of the problem with Lugar has been his attitude, accusing him of attacking and belittling the tea party.
“I don’t think any other conservatives or Republicans ever treated the tea party that way,” Fettig said.
Hoosiers for Conservative Senate will host a caucus in Indianapolis sometime between June and September to endorse a candidate to oppose Lugar. Already state Treasurer Richard Mourdock (R) is preparing to announce his candidacy against Lugar next week, and state Sen. Mike Delph (R), a former aide to Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), said he would take a look at the Senate race when the state legislative session ends later this spring.
Lugar senior adviser Mark Helmke said the tea party still may not present a unified front, insisting the Senator has met with tea partyers who support him. But Helmke declined to provide names of tea partyers who back the Senator.
In Utah, Bennett lost in 2010 at least partly because of the state’s unique nominating system. Utah first chooses delegates at county conventions, and those delegates whittle down the field at a state convention. Over the course of three votes the field is narrowed down, and as soon as a candidate tops 60 percent, he or she is the nominee. If no one tops 60 percent by the third vote, the two candidates who are left go to a statewide primary election.
In 2010, Bennett was eliminated at the GOP convention, and two candidates, Tim Bridgewater and Mike Lee, advanced to the primary. Lee won the primary and the general election and is now a leader of the tea party movement on Capitol Hill.
Dave Hansen, who led Hatch’s 2006 re-election bid and just returned to lead his 2012 bid, said the Senator is only continuing his long tradition of hearing from voters he represents.
“First of all, it’s important that he talk to everybody in the state, and he does that very well,” Hansen said. “Tea party groups are part of the voters out here. He wants to get their input.”
Hansen said Hatch has already begun recruiting supporters to run for county delegate spots.