What Bob Bennett's defeat means for the Tea Parties.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
May 10 2010 7:31 PM

All Politics Is Vocal

How the Tea Parties exploited Utah's bizarre electoral quirks.

Bob Bennett. Click image to expand.
Bob Bennett

Tea partiers celebrated two victories this weekend. The first was ousting Sen. Bob Bennett of Utah after 18 years in office at the state's Republican nominating convention. The second was rewriting the Maine Republican Party's platform to read like a Tea Party manifesto, anti-ACORN provisions and all.

Both victories were greeted with shock—and predictions of more Tea Party revolts to come. "It's the beginning of a trend," said Robin Wright of Bennett's defeat on ABC News' This Week. But neither event is likely to be replicated on a large scale. Rather, they were examples of grassroots activists taking advantage of the quirks in two states' electoral processes—in one case, the nominating process, in another, the party platform process—to draw national attention.

Take the Utah example. Instead of a regular statewide primary, Utah's Republican Party holds a runoff at the state convention, where 3,500 delegates vote on the full roster of Republican candidates. Those delegates, sent to the convention by their local committees, tend to be more conservative than the average Utah Republican, which is saying something. As a result, Bennett made it through the first round of voting on Saturday but came in third place in the second round, with only 27 percent of the vote, which eliminated him from the ballot. Because the deadline for registering as an independent has already passed, Bennett's best shot at winning the June primary was gone. (He could still stage a massive write-in campaign.)

A normal primary would probably have turned out differently. In late April, a poll of registered Republican voters showed Bennett 20 points ahead of his closest challenger. But a smaller pool of voters—or in this case, delegates—gives vocal activists outsized influence. "With voting, there's a filter for how excited you are," says Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform. "If you're not excited you don't vote." The bar for attending a convention is even higher. You have to take four hours, find a baby-sitter, find someone to cover you on your job, and drive to the convention. "There's a heavy sieve," says Norquist.

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The smaller pool also multiplied the effects of the Club for Growth's $200,000 campaign against Bennett, which highlighted his vote for the Troubled Asset Relief Program and his co-sponsorship of the Wyden-Bennett health care bill. In other words, the ads fell on disproportionately receptive ears.

Maine was an unusual case, too. Most state GOP conventions accept the party platform approved by the platform committee, which consists of party representatives from each county. When the platform reaches the floor, other delegates sometimes offer minor amendments. This time, though, one county committee offered an amendment that would repeal the original platform and replace it with a whole new document. It passed. Now the official Maine Republican Party platform explicitly opposes the Fairness Doctrine, advocates a "return to the principles of Austrian Economics," and warns against "efforts to create a one world government."

This may not take advantage of laws specific to Maine. But the decision to scrap the entire document spontaneously reflects that state's New England-y "town meeting" form of governance. "That's the spirit of town meetings," says Mary Adams, a conservative activist who was on the GOP platform committee. "Oh, somebody's got a better idea, let's go with that."

Other states have similar quirks that Tea Partiers may try to exploit. Any state with a nominating convention, for example, favors vocal insurgents. Tea Partiers are already gearing up for Colorado's convention on May 22, so much that moderate Republican Senate candidate Jane Norton has decided to bypass the convention entirely, ceding the affair instead to Tea Party favorite Ken Buck. Norton will gather signatures to qualify for the ballot instead.

There's nothing new about exploiting a state's electoral quirks. The last time a national candidate tried, it worked out rather well. Barack Obama famously leveraged the Iowa caucuses to his advantage—he had the most energized voters—and then focused on other caucus states that award a disproportionate number of delegates to a smaller group of voters. Hillary Clinton all but wrote them off. Obama thus eked out a victory, even though Clinton won larger states like Texas and Ohio.

Taking advantage of local quirks is key for any national insurgency. So is knowing the ins and outs of the party convention process. George McGovern won the Democratic nomination in 1972 partly because of his team's convention-floor machinations. The Tea Party's goals may be federal, but the groups themselves are grounded in local activism (and the occasional $200,000 campaign by the Club for Growth). So even if the movement doesn't give the Republican Party its next presidential candidate, it can still stage a slow takeover, one platform at a time.

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Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.

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