With just five days to go, the GOP Senate primary in Utah between businessman Tim Bridgewater and lawyer Mike Lee is getting nasty at least by Beehive State standards.
Thats because the winner is all but certain to win the general election this fall, and Bridgewater and Lee have only ramped up their attack machines since they toppled Sen. Bob Bennett at the state GOP convention in May.
Lees campaign has challenged Bridgewaters conservative credentials by insisting that his business interests were built with government earmarks and stimulus money. Some Lee backers are also drawing connections between Bridgewater and a controversial mailer that was distributed in the days before the convention that used a picture of Lee and the Mormon Temple. Lees camp has already said it will file a Federal Election Commission complaint over the mailer and has asked Bridgewater to help him get to the bottom of who paid for it.
Meanwhile, Bridgewater launched his first ad of the primary this week and attacked Lee with a message that the last thing Washington, D.C., needs now is another lawyer who will join the club.
For too long Washington has been run by lawyers and political insiders, Bridgewater says in the spot. Lets take back our country and stop the insanity.
Lee spokesman Boyd Matheson suggested Wednesday that the last thing Congress needs is another politician who wants to treat government like a growing business.
If you look at a typical business, they expand and look for new opportunities, and thats what the government has done, Matheson said. We need someone who is going to go in there and use the Constitution and the law to reduce the size and reach and cost and get government out of our business.
Six weeks after his defeat at the convention, Bennett continues to cast his shadow over the race. The Senator endorsed Bridgewater last week, a move that Lees camp said would only redirect the anti-Bennett anger of the convention at Bridgewater. But Bridgewater supporters say Bennett can still bring in votes among the larger primary electorate.
A public opinion poll of rank-and-file Republican primary voters commissioned by the Salt Lake Tribune in early May found Bennett with a 19-point lead over Lee.
Bridgewater media consultant Brian Donahue said Bennetts endorsement, combined with that of the conventions fourth-place finisher, conservative activist Cherilyn Eagar, illustrates that Bridgewater can represent a large swath of voters from across the state.
Tim Bridgewater is carrying the banner for a new kind of Republican that many types of frustrated voters and Republicans can rally behind, Donahue said.
But Matt Hoskins, a spokesman for Sen. Jim DeMints Senate Conservatives Fund political action committee, disagreed. The South Carolina Republican is backing Lee.
Bennetts endorsement clarified that Bridgewater is Bennett-light and that he is the establishment candidate in the primary, Hoskins said.
After tea party activists played a role in knocking off Bennett at the convention, both Lee and Bridgewater have sought to rally support from those groups, and both have found success. But late in the campaign, Lee, who was a clerk for Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, has also found a receptive audience with the libertarian and constitutionalist crowd.