One Year Later, Bennett’s TARP Vote Still Echoing

This week marks the one-year anniversary of the collapse of financial giant Lehman Brothers and the beginning of the fiscal crisis that has gripped the country for the past 12 months.

That means the anniversary of the vote to pass the controversial Wall Street bailout bill is just around the corner, and Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) is one Member who continues to feel the heat from that vote more than 11 months later.

While Bennett was hailed by leaders on Capitol Hill as a chief negotiator for Senate Republicans on the Troubled Asset Relief Program, that distinction has turned into a dubious one in Utah, the reddest of red states.

Three Republicans have already filed to challenge the three-term Senator next year, and a fourth — businessman and former House candidate Tim Bridgewater — said he intends to file for the Senate race next month.

All are pointing to Bennett’s vote on the $700 billion bailout bill as a key example of how the Senator has lost touch with his party’s base.

“Most conservative voters believe [the TARP vote] was ill-advised and those that lead the charge will pay the price,— said freshman Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), who said he is keeping his powder dry and refraining from endorsing Bennett or anyone else in the GOP primary.

Bennett’s top opponent in the race is Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff (R), who lists as his top three issues on his campaign Web site “stop excessive spending,— “suspend earmarks— and “end the bailouts.— Shurtleff said Wednesday that he currently has two speaking engagements and a town hall event planned for the October anniversary of the TARP bill being signed into law.

Shurtleff entered the Senate race in May and reported just over $100,000 in cash on hand in his June 30 Federal Election Commission report. He said that he will be close to hitting his goal of raising $300,000 during the third quarter, and he’s expected to be in Washington, D.C., next week for a campaign fundraiser.

Although he’s well-known and has proved to be an effective fundraiser, Shurtleff has been criticized by some on the right for not being tough enough on key conservative issues such as immigration. He also ruffled some feathers among conservatives for questioning the wording of a 2004 amendment to the state constitution that prohibited same-sex marriage.

One of Shurtleff’s critics is businesswoman and conservative activist Cherilyn Eagar (R), who is hoping to position herself to the right of both Shurtleff and Bennett in the primary. Eagar’s views may gain some traction among the most conservative delegates who will attend the party’s nominating convention in May, but with just $25,000 raised this quarter, Eagar faces a steep climb against Shurtleff and Bennett.

Facing the hype of a serious primary challenge, Bennett’s campaign worked over the summer to shore up his right flank by releasing testimonials from Republican leaders such as former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and a recent endorsement from fellow Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah).

The Senator’s camp also continues to defend his TARP vote.

“Sen. Bennett saw TARP as a necessary response to a systematic financial meltdown,— the Senator’s son and campaign manager, Jim Bennett, said on Wednesday. “People recognize that while the TARP vote was an ugly thing, it was also a necessary thing. ... He still believes that and he still stands by that.—

Jim Bennett added that as the primary has developed, the Senator’s opponents “are trying very hard to blur the line between TARP and all of the irresponsible spending proposals that have followed.—

He pointed out that Bennett voted against other controversial bills like the stimulus plan and the auto industry bailout.

But now third-party groups have also begun to question the Senator’s conservative credentials.

The powerful anti-tax group Club for Growth slammed Bennett late last month in a television ad and letter-writing campaign to potential GOP delegates that focused on Bennett’s efforts to promote his Healthy Americans Act, a piece of legislation he created with Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).

Bennett’s camp has pushed back against the club and accused the anti-tax group of misrepresenting the Senator’s position. However, engaging with a well-funded and feisty conservative group like the club is probably the last thing that Bennett needs at this point is his re-election.

Meanwhile, Chaffetz said Bennett continues to find ways to antagonize his base, pointing to Bennett’s vote to confirm Obama appointee Cass Sunstein as head of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs at the Office of Management and Budget.

“Both of our Utah Senators voted in favor of [Sunstein] and consequently conservatives are furious,— Chaffetz said. “It was a dumb vote and he’ll pay the price. ... Cass Sunstein is an insider baseball vote but Utah delegates play insider baseball. They are paying attention.—

Under Utah’s party convention format, a candidate can avoid a primary if he earns 60 percent of the delegate vote at the convention. If that doesn’t happen, the top two finishers face off in a June primary.

Most Utah insiders believe that the convention is probably the place where a challenger will have the best chance to knock off the Senator. But Bennett, with his nearly $1 million war chest as of June 30 and his seat on the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, is still the clear frontrunner in the race.

“I’ve always considered a challenge to Bennett a long shot,— Utah Republican political consultant Jeff Hartley said. “It will be a significant obstacle to keep Bennett under 40 percent [at the convention]. And if he gets into a primary he’s a strong primary candidate because there are more moderate voters in that primary and because many communities in Utah appreciate the funding he’s brought to the state.—