In a humiliating end to his career, Senator Bob Bennett of Utah couldn’t get enough of his own party’s delegates at the Utah GOP convention to get past the second round of balloting for his re-election bid. After coming in third in the first two rounds, Bennett was automatically eliminated for the third round of voting. Earlier, he had pleaded with delegates to give him a second chance after coming under fire for supporting the TARP bailouts:
Sen. Bob Bennett (R-UT) has lost the battle for a fourth term in office after delegates to the UT GOP convention refused to renominate him on Saturday, a highly-placed source with knowledge of the vote count tells Hotline OnCall.
Instead, GOPers will choose between attorney Mike Lee (R) and business consultant Tim Bridgewater (R), who will advance to a third ballot. If neither candidate receives 60% of the vote, they will face off in a June 22 primary.
On the first ballot, Lee led with 28.75%, followed by Bridgewater’s 26.84%. Bennett finished third, with 25.91%. The remaining vote split among candidates who have openly opposed Bennett, making any comeback attempt a longshot to begin with.
Bennett, the 3-term incumbent with a largely conservative record, is the first victim of an angry GOP primary electorate, which is upset with his votes over TARP legislation and his work with Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) to try and forge a health care consensus. He had been targeted by the conservative Club for Growth, which did not back a specific rival but urged delegates to vote against the incumbent.
Bennett’s not the only one with egg on his face after today’s votes. Mitt Romney endorsed Bennett’s bid for re-election and introduced him at the convention, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell endorsed him as well. Sen. Orrin Hatch tried rounding up delegates for Bennett at the convention. However, the state’s GOP leadership declined to publicly back him and worked to keep the national party out of the convention fight as well.
This shows that the Tea Party movement isn’t about restoring a Republican status quo. The movement’s activists want real change, and real action to reverse the growth of government and the profligate spending that has gone on for far too long in Washington DC. Republican incumbents nationwide should consider this a wake-up call.
Bennett may not go quietly, however:
But Bennett could still have an impact in the contest. He told the AP earlier today he would not rule out a write-in candidacy if he loses at the convention. If Bennett, who is still popular among the larger UT electorate, were to run, he could have a chance at becoming the first successful write-in candidate since the late Strom Thurmond did it in ’54.
That would put the Utah GOP in a very tough position in the fall. They should have no trouble beating the Democrat in a one-on-one race, as Utah is a deeply Republican state. If Bennett tries splitting the vote with a write-in campaign, it may complicate matters for the eventual nominee. However, as Bennett could only get 27% of the vote even in the second round, there hardly seems to be a groundswell of Republican support that Bennett can ride to a general-election win … and Democrats certainly won’t bother writing in his name on the line.
The Club for Growth released a statement celebrating Bennett’s political demise:
“Utah Republicans made the right decision today for their state, and sent a clear message that change is finally coming to Washington. The media may report this as Bob Bennett’s loss, but we see it as a victory for Utah, for the United States Senate, and for the cause of economic freedom.
“Our goal all along was to ensure Utah Republicans knew about Bob Bennett’s true record in the Senate, so that they could make an informed decision today. The results show that we succeeded in that effort, and I thank the delegates for taking their considered attention.
“Mike Lee and Tim Bridgewater are genuine pro-growth conservatives, and we wish both the best of luck in next round of balloting.”
I interviewed Mike Lee at CPAC this year, and he seemed very optimistic that he could derail Bennett even then. It turned out that he was right, although he may not win enough ballots to get the nomination outright. If not, Lee and Bridgewater will face off in a June primary. Here’s the interview with Lee, which was a bit choppy due to bandwidth limitations for my connection:
Update: Tim Bridgewater overtook Mike Lee in the final ballot, but could not reach the required threshold of 60%, falling just short at 57% to Lee’s 43%. That means that the two will face each other in a primary on June 22nd. The Democrats have the same problem in a Congressional race:
Utah Democrats forced Rep. Jim Matheson (D-Utah) into a primary, giving the veteran congressman only 55% of the vote against progressive activist Claudia Wright, clearly blowback for Matheson’s votes against the Democratic agenda.
Hotline gives more background on the Democratic split:
Wright challenged the Blue Dog Matheson on his moderate voting record, and was particularly incensed by his vote against the new health care law. Matheson also voted against the cap-and-trade bill, and overall, he held the 25th most-conservative voting record for a Dem in ’09, according to NJ vote ratings.
Wright’s performance today is impressive, but her challenge in a primary will be much tougher. So far this cycle, she’s reported raising just $10K, and had just $9K CoH. In his pre-convo report, Matheson had over $1.4M CoH.
By most measures, this should be a top GOP pickup. Matheson’s CD gave John McCain 58% in ’08, and holds a Cook PVI rating of R+15. That rating is the fifth-highest for a Dem. This is strong GOP territory.
But Matheson’s voting record — which Wright and some liberals attack as too moderate — has proven to be a good fit for this CD. In Mar. — during the heat of the health care debate — Matheson registered a strong 57% approval rating. In addition, Matheson has only failed to reach 55% in a general election once — in ’02.
If the underdog Wright does pull off the upset on 6/22, this seat would again be in play, as her liberal positions are sure to put her a bit out the mainstream with the strongly GOP CD. But if Matheson’s the nominee, the CD will move much further down the GOP’s target list.
If Wright can bump Matheson out in the primary, the GOP may have a shot at grabbing this House seat. However, in case any voters think about registering as a Democrat to engage in some strategic primary voting, the Senate primary for the Republicans will probably convince those to leave the Democratic race to the Democrats, as Dave Weigel suggests.