Bob Bennett Fights for Political Survival in Utah


On Saturday, Utah Republicans will hold a convention to decide who will be their Senate nominee this year.

There are seven candidates seeking the nomination. If one gets 60 percent of the vote (from among the 3,500 GOP delegates), he becomes the nominee. Otherwise the top two candidates will be on the ballot in a June primary.

The big name among the candidates is Robert Bennett (pictured speaking to a state delegate), the three-term Utah senator. Bennett is not well-known nationally - as Politico notes, "while other senators find themselves mobbed by reporters, the lanky 6-foot-6 Bennett walks past unaccosted, munching on goodies." But he is powerful, thanks to his role on the Appropriations committee, and is well-respected by his peers, who see Bennett as a throwback to an era in which the Senate was a more genteel place.

He is also, currently, polling in third place. If Bennett can't break into the top two on Saturday, he won't be on the ballot, and his Senate career will most likely be over.

How did this happen? For starters, some are upset that Bennett backed the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, the bank bailout bill that has garnered the ire of a Republican base fed up with government spending. Because of that vote, the anti-tax and spending Club For Growth has spent over $100,000 to defeat Bennett.

Also problematic from a GOP activist perspective is Bennett's work with liberal Sen. Ron Wyden on a bipartisan health care bill beginning back in 2007. He ultimately opposed the Democrat-backed health care reform plan that was signed into law, but critics said his proposal mirrored the Obama-backed plan.

Don't take this to mean that Bennett is anything approaching a liberal: An anti-abortion rights proponent of the flat tax, he has been a consistent conservative in office, garnering a solid lifetime rating of 84 from the American Conservative Union for his voting record, as well as the backing of the National Rifle Association.

But thanks to a combination of Utah's unique nominating system, anger over his TARP vote and health care proposal, and the anti-incumbent sentiment sweeping the country, Bennett is on the verge of becoming the first high-profile Republican casualty of the 2010 election cycle.

It didn't help that Bennett, who is 76, initially promised to serve only two terms; he is now seeking his fourth. The situation has fed perceptions among Utah GOP delegates - who tend to be more conservative than the state's Republicans overall - that Bennett is just the sort of establishment Washington presence whose time has come.

Bennett has spent the week not in Washington but back home trying to win over delegates; to get a sense of the perspective of those he is trying to win over, consider what delegate Spencer Haymond told the Associated Press. Haymond prefers conservative activist Cherilyn Eagar, but he said he is willing to support Bennett if Bennett survives to a second round of balloting and Eagar does not.

The reason? "I see other candidates positioning themselves for a career, and he's got a built-in time clock," Haymond told the AP.

Bennett currently trails attorney Mike Lee's and entrepreneur Tim Bridgewater; he is within striking distance of the latter, according to polls, and is focused now on edging out Bridgewater to get on the primary ballot. (The filing deadline has already passed for Bennett to run as an independent.)

The prospect of Bennett coming up short has his Senate colleagues lamenting the current political climate - and fearing who could be next. Bennett's father was a Utah senator and his grandfather a Mormon church president; he's seen as an unprepossessing and intelligent gentleman senator more interested in behind-the-scenes legislating than generating headlines.

Such legislators have become something of an endangered species in the modern, polarized Senate.

"He's fighting the good fight but there are some misconceptions he's facing that are very hard to overcome," Orrin Hatch, Utah's other GOP senator, told Politico.

Added Hatch, speaking of the party's base: "They're mad at everybody."