Bennett Defeated at Utah GOP Convention

Posted May 8, 2010 at 4:51pm

Updated: 6:55 p.m.

Sen. Bob Bennett (Utah), who was first elected to the Senate in 1992, will not be the Republican nominee this fall after he failed to finish in the top two at the state’s GOP nominating convention on Saturday.

Bennett finished third in the second round of balloting behind attorney Mike Lee and businessman Tim Bridgewater.

The only electoral path left for the Senator after his defeat Saturday would be a long-shot write-in campaign. A spokeswoman for the Senator said Bennett has made “no commitment” about whether he would take that route.

Bennett’s loss will not endanger Republicans’ chances of holding the seat in November but will be celebrated as a victory by conservative activists who had painted him as a “Republican in name only” who was too willing to work with Democrats on issues such as government financial bailouts and health care. On a national level, it will be viewed as a clear example of just how much of an anti-incumbent and anti-establishment cycle 2010 has become.

Bennett had hoped to garner enough support Saturday to force a primary, where he could take his message to all of Utah’s Republicans rather than have his fate decided by the more conservative party activists who attend the convention.

Bennett, a close ally of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), had tried to leverage his broad support from the national GOP establishment leading up to the convention. On Saturday, he brought former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R), a fellow Mormon, to the podium before he addressed the convention. But Bennett’s appeals about seniority, experience and connections fell on mostly deaf ears on Saturday.

Bennett’s loss will also be a major victory for the anti-tax group, the Club for Growth, who had put the Senator at the top of its target list this primary season. Bennett became a top target of the club in the wake of his efforts to help pass the Wall Street bailout bill in 2008, and the group took a lead role in lobbying delegates to oust the three-term Senator leading to Saturday’s convention. The club spent heavily on its effort to lobby convention voters to dump Bennett.

“Utah Republicans made the right decision today for their state, and sent a clear message that change is finally coming to Washington,” Club for Growth President Chris Chocola said in a statement immediately following Bennett’s defeat. “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.”

It remains to be seen whether Lee and Bridgewater will go to a primary or whether one of the two can gain enough support to win the nomination outright. A third round of balloting has been called.

National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) released a statement Saturday praising Bennett’s service and reiterating that the committee will back the eventual nominee.

“This has been an open and spirited process and I want to be clear that the NRSC will wholeheartedly support the Republican candidate that primary voters in Utah ultimately choose as their nominee,” Cornyn said. “I am confident that this Senate seat remains in Republican control this November.”