A conservative organization that regularly targets moderate Republicans is lashing out at Utah Sen. Bob Bennett, calling his health reform proposal "government run."
The Club for Growth announced Tuesday that it will launch a new TV ad against Bennett and will send letters denouncing his bill to 3,200 former state Republican delegates.
Bennett, a three-term incumbent, is facing a tough re-election campaign in 2010, with three Republicans running as more conservative alternatives. That includes Attorney General Mark Shurtleff who said: "Bennett's bill to nationalize health insurance confirms he has fully made the transformation from a free-market conservative to a Washington insider."
Bennett's campaign struck back, calling the Club's claim "grossly inaccurate" and saying Shurtleff "has decided to run a negative campaign that deliberately misrepresents the senator's position."
The Club's letter sent to past Republican delegates could be a boost for Bennett's challenges. A candidate must get 60 percent of the delegate vote in a state convention to avoid a primary, giving these Republican insiders considerable clout.
The back and forth is focused on the Healthy Americans Act, a comprehensive health reform proposal Bennett is sponsoring with Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore. The bill -- an alternative to the ideas now pushed by President Barack Obama -- would greatly reduce the number of people who get insurance through their employer.
"Sen. Bennett's bill is a health care nightmare," said Club for Growth president Chris Chocola, a former Indiana congressman. "Rather than lowering the cost of care by increasing competition, it turns control of our health insurance system over to the government."
The 30-second ad that Club for Growth titled "Bennett: Control" shows a person staring at a computer screen that displays claims about Bennett's bill, repeatedly focusing on the word government.
It claims that the Healthy Americans Act is "government health insurance that pushes you out of your current plan" that requires people to buy coverage "approved by the government" and includes "job-killing tax increases." The Club also says the bill comes with a $1 trillion price tag.
The ad ends by asking people to call the senator and "ask him to drop his plan for massive government control of health care."
As part of the organization's $1.2 million ad campaign focused on the health care debate, the Club will spend about $90,000 in Utah to run the spot on cable channels.
The senator rebutted the group's claims through his son and campaign manager, Jim Bennett.
"Senator Bennett is absolutely opposed to a government-run health care system and saying otherwise is 100 percent false," Jim Bennett said in a statement.
He said the Healthy Americans Act doesn't push people out of their plan, instead it gives both employers and workers options to look for a plan on a revamped open market.
"Bennett's bill is the only health care plan that would put Americans in charge of their own health care dollars, create competition in the private markets, and drive down the escalating costs of care that Americans can no longer afford," Jim Bennett said.
The senator's campaign also pointed to a Congressional Budget Office analysis that said his bill would actually save the government money.
Club for Growth has made a name for itself by opposing Republican incumbents that it believes have not been conservative enough. The organization has not come out in favor of any of Bennett's opponents, but is considering it, said David Keating, the Club's executive director.
Other than Shurtleff, Bennett is being challenged by former congressional candidate Tim Bridgewater, Republican activist Cherilyn Eager and businessman James Williams. Democrat Sam Granato is also in the race.
Republican U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz has said he hasn't closed the door on running against Bennett as well.
"Senator Bennett's support for a health care plan that massively increases government control and taxes is definitely a major factor in our decision to look at alternatives," Keating said in a statement. "Whether it be Attorney General Shurtleff, Congressman Chaffetz or someone else."
The bill proposed by Sens. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, and Ron Wyden, D-Ore, allows both workers and employers to opt out of the employer-based insurance system.
It provides that those who no longer get their insurance at work would pick a plan through a health-care exchange, essentially a virtual marketplace, where each plan must meet minimum federal guidelines. Workers would get a boost in pay equivalent to what their employers were paying for their health insurance. That pay would be taxed, but most people would see that offset by a tax credit.
The premiums would be automatically deducted from paychecks for those who choose an exchange. Also everyone would be required to buy insurance or pay a penalty. The plan requires companies that don't offer insurance to provide the government with some money that would be used to offer subsidies for the poor.