(CNN) - Republican voters in Utah head to their county caucuses Thursday, marking the first step in a primary battle that some hope will topple longtime incumbent Sen. Orrin Hatch.
FreedomWorks, a conservative grassroots group, has been targeting the six-term senator over the last year, aiming to play a similar role as it did in the state's 2010 race.
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At that time, the group aggressively worked to help unseat Sen. Bob Bennett in the GOP primary, which later paved the way for tea party favorite Mike Lee to capture the nomination and ultimately win the senate seat.
In a call with supporters, Russ Walker, the federal and state campaign director for FreedomWorks for America, the group's super PAC, said the committee has spent more than $600,000 in this race making the case that Hatch has voted too many times for "big government" policies in Washington.
At more than 2,000 caucuses across the state, voters on Thursday will elect the 4,000 delegates slated to represent them at the state convention in April. If a candidate wins at least 60% of the vote at the convention, then the candidate wins the nomination. However, if no one breaks that threshold, then the top two picks move on to a primary.
The caucuses essentially take the party's temperature for the first time this cycle, offering a sneak-peek of the delegate make-up at next month's convention.
According to Walker, FreedomWorks for America has been forcefully on the ground in Utah in recent months, holding more than 36 town halls criticizing Hatch's record and instructing voters on how to become delegates.
"We're very excited about this race, and tonight is going to be a big day," Walker said.
While the group has not donated money directly to one of Hatch's Republican challengers, former State Sen. Dan Liljenquist, FreedomWorks praised the candidate's work and presented him with the award "Legislative Entrepreneur of the Year" in 2011, shortly before Liljenquist announced his run.
Hatch made headlines Tuesday night when he announced that if he's elected to a seventh term later this year, it would be his last.
Describing it as a "disingenuous" move, DJ Schanz, a FreedomWorks for America volunteer in Utah, said on the call with reporters that the announcement was a sign their "messaging was working."
"It's just a classic case of a wounded bird fluttering," Schanz said.
Hatch has the backing of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who easily won Utah's presidential contest last cycle. The former Massachusetts governor also starred in radio and TV ads for Hatch in a major ad buy across the state in recent weeks.
Speaking to CNN on Tuesday, Hatch's campaign manager Dave Hansen said his team feels confident heading into Thursday's caucuses.
"We feel very good about where we stand right now," Hansen said.
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I see that the RINOs are after him, too, just like Sen. Lugar.
Teabaggers are hell-bent on destroying this country.
Republicans continue to prove they are dirty rotten scoundrels.
Voting out ALL INCUMBENTS would be good start to cleaning house ( I mean House and Senate).
Sen. Orrin Hatch and Sen. Richard Lugar must replace by Tea Party members
I love how they call his plan to retire "disingenuous", because that would mean he's worked at the same job for 42 years if he gets re-elected.
How many people who work for this conservative group actually live in Utah? I don't see where they get the idea that they can move in and speak for the GOP of Utah. If he loses the nomination process, then there is a lot of seniority that is lost by the state.
I am not a republican...but the tp people are screwing up our country! if hatch is being targeted because he has been actually trying to get things done and his votes are for the best deal for all...i would really hope the people of ut. look at the big picture not what a tp person is saying today.
Freedomworks is Dick Armeys group. Dennis Calabrese was his chief of staff, and Liljenquists boss since January of 2011. They have been grooming Liljenquist for the past year. The connections were in place before his "Legislative Entrepreneur of the Year" award. Dennis and Liljenquist are part of the Laura and John Arnold foundation (Enron link). Astroturf doesn't have roots.
Freedomworks has spent > $615,000 trying to unseat Hatch, while Liljenquist slips by without a vetting.
We are allowing these groups to come into our states and set up business. Residents of each state are perfectly capable of electing their own representatives. Just take a look at who is in command of some of these groups. In some cases they were forced to resign for because they made decisions which were deemed to be illegal. The now want to tell you how to vote. Come on folks, we are smarter than that.