Bennett out; GOP delegates reject 18-year Senate veteran
Three-term Sen. Bob Bennett became the first victim this year of a wave of voter anger toward Washington in a defeat that will likely send a jolt through incumbents everywhere.
Businessman Tim Bridgewater finished first in the final round of balloting, beating attorney Mike Lee 57 percent to 43 percent, meaning they will face off in a June 22 primary battle.
"I always think I'm going to win. I met 2,700 delegates. I knew where the delegates were," Bridgewater said. "I feel like I can relate to people from all walks of life in this state."
When it was announced that Bennett had been eliminated from the race, a huge ovation swept through the convention hall and there were hoots and shouts of "He's gone! He's gone!" Other delegates hugged and tea party members waved their yellow "Do Not Tread On Me" flags.
Bennett becomes the first Utah senator to fail to get his party's nomination since Democrats tossed out Sen. William King in 1940 over King's opposition to the New Deal.
Bennett, who is the son of four-term Sen. Wallace Bennett, was in tears as he answered questions during an emotional meeting with reporters.
"The political atmosphere, obviously, has been toxic and it's very clear some of the votes that I have cast have added to the toxic environment," he said, choking up. "Looking back on them, with one or two very minor exceptions, I wouldn't have cast them any differently even if I'd known at the time it would cost me my career."
Bennett could conceivably run a write-in campaign, but he cannot run as an independent since the deadline has passed for him to get his name on the ballot. He said he would support whomever the party nominates.
Julian Zelizer, a professor at Princeton University, said that while Bennett's defeat may have been an anomaly attributable to Utah's unique convention system, any time a long-serving incumbent is beaten it sends shock waves.
"I think all incumbents are nervous right now. The polls are just showing that voters are unhappy with Democrats or Republicans," he said.
"It takes on a life of its own. His loss will energize tea partiers and others to take on others," Zelizer said.
Sen. Orrin Hatch said he felt badly for his long-time colleague.
"He was a good senator, he was a good conservative," Hatch said. "He's got some very strong positions in there in the Senate and it took a while to get there. But you know, people are angry. They're really upset at the way things are going and I think to a degree that's what hurt him."
Chris Chocola, president of the conservative Club For Growth, which spent nearly $200,000 trying to defeat Bennett said that Utah Republicans made the right decision "and sent a clear message that change is finally coming to Washington."
"We see it as a victory for Utah, the United States Senate, and for the cause of economic freedom," Chocola said.
Bennett spent $2.8 million on his campaign, seven times as much as all seven of his challengers combined. That translates into nearly $3,100 spent for each of the 905 delegate votes he received.
Utah Republican Party Chairman Dave Hansen thanked Bennett for his service as senator.
"Senator Bennett has provided 18 years of service to the state of Utah and to the Republican Party," Hansen said. "Whether you support him or not we should all join together and be grateful for the service he has provided."
Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele said Bennett had been a "wonderful steward for the people of Utah."
In his speech before the final round of balloting, Bridgewater made a clear overture to Bennett's supporters, thanking the senator for his 18 years of service.
"A lot of you may disagree with some of his votes. He's a good man. I wish him well," he said.
Lee received the endorsement of South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, a leading national conservative, in a video statement.
"We need a senator who is committed to balanced budgets, constitutional limits and individual liberty. I believe that person is Mike Lee," DeMint said.
Bennett appeared earlier in the day alongside Mitt Romney, a superstar among Utah Republicans, who said Bennett was needed in the Senate.
"With the sweep and arrogance of the liberal onslaught today in Washington, we need Bob Bennett's skill and loyalty and power," Romney said.
Even after the first round of balloting, when it was apparent that Bennett would need an almost impossible flood of conservative support to survive, the senator was defiantly optimistic, saying he was essentially in a three-way tie and anything could happen.
In another, race Republican congressional hopeful Morgan Philpot, a former state lawmaker, escaped a primary face-off with Neil Walter by a single vote. In November, Philpot will take on the winner of the Jim Matheson-Claudia Wright primary on the Democratic side.
A member of the Senate appropriations committee and close adviser to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., Bennett came under fire in recent months for supporting the first round of bank bailouts during the Bush administration and his co-sponsorship of a bipartisan health reform package that would have required individuals to buy insurance.
That anger melded with an anti-incumbent rage. Fueled by tea party movement and 9/12 groups, Republicans flooded their party caucuses, nearly doubling the turnout two years ago, and endangering Bennett.
Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine said Bennett's defeat proves that the tea party has a firm grip on the GOP.
"That the tea party would consider Bob Bennett, one of the most conservative members of the U.S. Senate, too liberal, just goes to show how extreme that tea party is," Kaine said. "If there was any question before, there should now be no doubt that the Republican leadership has handed the reins to the tea party."
In Florida, Gov. Charlie Crist bolted the party to run as an independent after he was unable to win support from the Republican conservatives. And Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter changed parties, fearing he would not be able to fend of a conservative challenge.
Lee's campaign said it was damaged by a controversial mailer that showed up in delegates' mailboxes on Friday. It pictured Lee's picture over the LDS temple and Bennett's picture over the Capitol, questioning "Which candidate really has Utah values?"
It was sent by a group calling itself "Utah Defenders of Constitutional Integrity," and was apparently sent from Cleveland, but there is nothing else known about the group. Both Lee and Benentt's camp denied having any hand in the mailing and Lee condemned the attack ad during his speech.
"Some falsely accused me of accepting illegal contributions. Others that appeared to support me are patently offensive," he said, denying that they were in any way connected to his campaign.
But Lee's spokesman, Dan Hauser, said before the final vote that there was no question the Mormon mailer hurt the campaign.
"If you asked us in January if we would be happy with the position we're in, absolutely," he said. "Do I think we lost some votes because of the mailers? Absolutely. And I think it was a slow drip over the week of all the false attacks. It was just drip, drip, drip."
Michael Richards of Herriman who is LDS and a Mike Lee supporter said the ad was "repulsive. "
"It's not a religious thing. This is not about religion... it's about who supports the Constitution," he said.
Thomas Burr contributed to this report.
O The Tribune online edition erroneously reported, for a short time Saturday afternoon, that Sen. Bob Bennett had survived a second round of balloting at the GOP convention. The mix-up occurred when an editor created alternate versions of the voting outcome and, apparently through a technical glitch, the wrong version was posted.
The Tribune Online erroneously reported, for a short time Saturday afternoon, that Sen. Bob Bennett had survived a second round of balloting at the GOP convention. The mix-up occurred when an editor created alternate versions of the voting outcome and, apparently through a technical glitch, the wrong version was posted.