Lee edges out Bridgewater for GOP Senate nomination in Utah

Score another win for the Tea Party.  Mike Lee had to fight through a Utah state convention, a sitting Republican incumbent, and the incumbent’s endorsement of his primary opponent to win the nomination to the US Senate.  He will almost certainly sail to victory in the general election after edging Tim Bridgewater last night:

After weeks of bitter sparring, attorney Mike Lee won a hard-fought victory over businessman Tim Bridgewater, clinching the Republican nomination and likely a spot as Utah’s next U.S. Senator. Lee led Bridgewater 51 percent to 49 percent with 97 percent of the precincts reporting. “We had an army of hard-fighting, hard-campaigning volunteers and they just refused to quit because they believed in our message,” Lee said late Tuesday. …

At 11 p.m., Bridgewater called Lee to concede the race. “We were hopeful we were going to win tonight but it looks like were not going to pull it out,” said Bridgewater, who ran for Congress in 2002 and 2004 and lost in the Republican primary both times. “I feel like our team worked hard. We ran an honorable campaign and I can hold my head high. We fought passionately for this county.”

Lee, speaking to a crowd chanting, “We like Mike,” called his victory a “peaceful revolution” “It is different than any election year any of us have ever seen in our lifetime,” he said. “It is different because people are taking the power back.”

The Salt Lake Tribune notes the two dynamics that came into play in the primary:

The primary victory marks a crusade for Lee that started a year ago, as the conservative attorney and constitutional scholar launched a speaking tour around the state, speaking on the original intent of the U.S. Constitution. He formally joined the race in January, one of a handful of candidates seeking to capitalize on vocal and passionate conservative opposition to Sen. Bob Bennett. Fueled by a healthy dose of Tea Party anger, Republican delegates bounced Bennett at the Utah Republican Convention in May. It was the first time since 1940 that an incumbent senator from Utah has failed to get his party’s nomination.

Bridgewater emerged victorious from the state convention, receiving 57 percent of the support of delegates to Lee’s 42 percent. Lee benefited from the backing of several out-of-state groups, most notably South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint’s Senate Conservatives Fund, which pumped nearly $200,000 into Lee’s election bid. Bridgewater got the backing of most of the other Republican Senate contenders, including endorsements from Bennett and conservative activist Cherilyn Eagar.

The race was close, as the Tea Party grassroots mainly wanted to push Bennett into retirement and probably saw either Lee or Bridgewater as an improvement.  It’s worth noting that Bridgewater won the ballot at the convention, where the composition of attendees swings much more towards the activists than do primary voters.  Lee came into the primary at a disadvantage, and given that Bennett himself was more popular among the general Republican electorate than he was at the convention — some surveys suggest that Bennett would have kept his seat in a primary-only system — Bridgewater seemed to have the momentum.

So what happened?  Utah Republicans apparently want a significant change.  The alignment of the establishment behind Bridgewater appears to have backfired.  The closer identification of Lee to Senator DeMint and his Senate Conservatives Fund may also have helped distinguish Lee as more of an outsider.  Certainly, Bridgewater’s multiple attempts to get the seat didn’t give Bridgewater the aura of an outsider in this race.

The lesson of 2010 will probably be that establishment candidates will lose in close races, especially in primaries, and even more so when the outsider has made himself into a serious candidate as Lee did.  Michael Steele wasted no time in welcoming Lee to the general election fight, and the Utah GOP should coalesce around their new nominee despite the tough fight, but make no mistake: it’s the grassroots that Lee represents in 2010, and that’s a good place to be.