The death of the much-admired former Utah Sen. Robert F. Bennett just hours after Donald Trump effectively secured his party’s presidential nomination reminded official Washington of the first visible stirrings of the unrest that Trump has now ridden to the top of his party.
Before there was Trump’s “beautiful wall,” or oath to make America great again, there was this: Bennett, a party stalwart with a reputation for pragmatism and deftness at the pork-barrel politics that made compromise possible, brought to tears at a 2010 nominating convention as he realized that his own party was ousting him after 18 years in the Senate.
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Bennett, who had been fighting cancer and had been weakened by a stroke, died on May 4. But it was six years ago that he became the first victim of the first strike of what has lately become a full-blown “civil war inside of the Republican Party,” said Rick Wilson, a Republican political strategist and media consultant.
“That was the rumblings, the preview of the beginning of the first act,” Wilson said. “Now we’re in the second, and it’s getting much louder, much uglier, deciding whether we’re going to be a conservative party or a nationalist, populist party in the image of Donald Trump. And it’s a very hairy moment for conservative Republicans.”
Bennett was one of the most powerful conservatives in the Senate, with the passion and pedigree that in earlier times would have made him untouchable. But his skill as a legislator led to his undoing, inflaming a then-nascent faction of tea party activists in his home state whose power came as an obvious surprise to the three-term senator and many of his friends and colleagues.
Bennett had all the hallmarks of a classic American statesman. His father, Wallace F. Bennett , preceded him in the office. They shared the same rangy, 6-foot-6 physique. Bennett had even served as his dad’s campaign manager and aide. His mother, Frances Grant Bennett , was the daughter of a Mormon Church president and served on the church’s board.
He was the student body president at the University of Utah and became independently wealthy as the head of the company that made the Franklin Day Planner schedule organizer before running for the Senate. He also had a self-deprecating sense of humor. In 2004, his campaign billboards carried the slogan “Big Heart. Big Ideas. Big Ears.”
Bennett represented an old-guard of the conservative movement, a breed of politician whose strongest allegiance was to his state, and who was willing to make deals and accept incremental changes for the good of his constituents, said Jason Grumet, president of the Bipartisan Policy Center , where Bennett served as a senior fellow after his retirement.
“To some extent, that was his downfall,” Grumet said. “He really felt that he represented every single person in the state of Utah and not just the loudest voices that have become dominant of late.”
While he was in the Senate, Bennett would sometimes write to President Barack Obama to suggest ways the president and Congress could work more productively together, Grumet said.
Bennett became a close friend to then-minority leader Mitch McConnell, who gave him a seat at leadership meetings and often asked him to reach out behind the scenes to both Republicans and Democrats.
“Bob Bennett once said that there are two kinds of senators in Washington, work horses and show horses,” McConnell said. “It’s clear to anyone who knew him which path Senator Bennett followed.”
He served on the appropriations committee, where he was an expert at earmarking federal projects for his home state. And he had a reputation for seeking common ground with Democrats on complex issues, most notably when he teamed with Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, with whom he drafted a proposal to expand health insurance coverage before the dawn of Obamacare.
“Senator Bennett was a cherished friend of mine and I have missed his presence since the day he left the Senate,” said Wyden. “[E]ach time I worked with him was a reminder of his incredible intellect, work ethic, and thoughtfulness. Unfortunately, those qualities are in too short supply in Congress today.”
Bennett knew at the time that the measure had earned him some enemies at home, said former Democratic Sen. Byron L. Dorgan, who visited Bennett a week before his death and reminisced with him about their time in Congress. Dorgan was chairman of the Energy-Water subcommittee when Bennett was ranking member. The two would lean over to each other during breaks in hearings and ask how things were going back in their home states. Bennett’s comments turned cryptic during his final years in office, Dorgan said: “He’d say ‘Well, they’ve got a group after me. They think I’m not conservative.'”
The final reckoning came at a nominating convention in Utah. Under the state party’s rules, delegates get to vote on candidates ahead of a primary, with the top two contenders then continuing in the race.
In the first sign that something was unusual that year, Bennett had seven opponents at the convention, a rarity for a sitting senator, said Matthew Burbank, who teaches political science at the University of Utah. They all claimed he was not conservative enough for Utah.
“Among the delegates, there was a deep unhappiness, not with Bennett personally, but with what he represented: Politics as usual in Washington,” Burbank said. “They saw Bennett as essentially the facilitator of big government.”
Polls showed that Bennett had a clear lead among general voters in the state — 27 percent vs. 9 percent for his nearest competitor, now Sen. Mike Lee, according to the Deseret News . No sitting senator had been run out of office before a primary in over 60 years.
Bennett and his team told reporters before the convention that at worst, they expected to finish second to a rival he could handily defeat in the primary. Instead, Bennett was knocked out in an early round, provoking what the Deseret News described as a “long, sustained cheer ” from party delegates as his defeat was announced.
“Nobody was thinking that was what would happen,” Burbank said. “Here was a guy who had been a Republican all his life, and that’s the message he gets. His own party was telling him, ‘No you’re not our guy. You’re not one of us.’ ”
Bennett choked back tears as he addressed the television cameras.
“The political atmosphere, obviously, has been toxic,” he said. “And it’s very clear that some of the votes that I have cast have added to the toxic environment.”
Utah voters ultimately replaced Bennett with Lee , who is known for his singularly strong relationship with similarly conservative Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.
And even Cruz wasn’t the right fit for the GOP primary electorate that ultimately embraced Trump.