Bye-Bye Bob Bennett? Why The GOP Senator Could Lose His Seat

Sen. Bob Bennett (R-UT) could very well become the first incumbent Senator to lose re-election in 2010, when his state party convention convenes next weekend. So how is that even though Bennett has voted against the Obama administration’s key initiatives, he may become a casualty of the anti-spending Tea Party right and its fellow travelers?

Bennett himself has offered an explanation, which rings true in many ways. There is an anti-incumbent, anti-establishment mood among conservative activists, who want to throw the bums out in Washington. “But in this state, there is no Democrat to get really mad at in this fashion, so they get mad at me,” Bennett has said.

A recent Mason-Dixon poll of convention delegates gave attorney Mike Lee 37%, followed by businessman Tim Bridgewater with 20%, the incumbent Bennett at only 16%, and businesswoman Cherilyn Eagar with 11%. In another bad sign for Bennett, a whopping 61% of delegates view Bennett unfavorably, with only 28% having a favorable view of him.Under the rules of the Utah GOP, a candidate with 60% of the convention vote will be nominated outright, with no primary. Voting is conducted by secret ballot over three rounds, which will narrow the field of candidates down from eight names, to three, and then to two candidates for a final vote. If the 60% super-majority is not reached, then the final two contenders will meet in a primary — meaning that a candidate must receive at least 40% of the convention vote in order to make it to the primary. With the incumbent Bennett at only 16% in the Mason-Dixon poll, it doesn’t look too good for him going into the convention.

One Republican source in Utah told TPMDC that one notable factor was the involvement of the Tea Party movement, which swelled the number of people attending the party caucuses this past March, which elected delegates to the state GOP convention. “We usually have 30,000-40,000 people show up. This year it’s probably about 75,000,” the source said. “And a lot of those people were people of these movements, the Tea Party Movement, 912, things like this. They’ve been meeting and training for months.”

The source also said that many of the anti-Bennett forces don’t even realize how little Bennett has actually voted against their positions. “If you ask a lot of people out here, they say that Bennett voted for TARP, that he voted for the stimulus bills, that he voted for the auto bailout,” said the source. “The simple fact is he voted for TARP 1, he didn’t vote for TARP 2, he hasn’t voted for anything else. But a lot of people either choose not to accept that, or they don’t understand that he hasn’t voted for those things.”

But it’s not simply the case that the Tea Parties are taking over the party against Bennett — he likely would have been in trouble even if they hadn’t swarmed the caucuses, the source said: “It might not be quite as intense, quite as bad, but it still would have been there.” For example, the source noted that there had been complaints in past years about Bennett taking a moderate stance on immigration reform, and about having broken his term-limit pledge when he was re-elected back in 2004.

One conservative group that has aggressively targeted Bennett for defeat is the Club For Growth. “Ever since he went back on his pledge to only serve two terms, he’s kind of become a beltway first, big government Republican,” said Club spokesman Mike Connolly, in an interview with TPM.

“He supported the TARP Wall Street bailout in 2008, he has supported earmarks on the Appropriations Committee,” said Connolly. He supported the Bridge To Nowhere earmarks in Alaska, even after the scandal broke in Alaska about it. And we had a lot of concerns bout his health bill, the Healthy Americans Act, that raises taxes and spending, and imposes an unconstitutional individual mandate, and requires Americans to pay their health insurance premiums to the IRS.”

But didn’t Bennett ultimately vote against the new health care law, we asked? “His bill, the Wyden-Bennett bill, is a health care takeover,” Connolly responded. “Just because he opposed ObamaCare doesn’t mean he doesn’t favor a vast expansions of federal government control of the health care system. It’s right there in his bill.”

Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, told reporters Thursday that the NRSC is “supporting him every way we know how,” but also they “cannot take anything for granted.” Cornyn did add: “The good news from my perspective is Republicans will hold that seat regardless of the outcome.”

It should of course be noted that Utah is one of the most conservative, Republican-friendly states in the nation. The last time it voted Democratic for president was in the 1964 Lyndon Johnson landslide; the last time it elected a Democratic Senator was 1970; and it voted for John McCain in 2008 by a margin of 63%-34%. So if Bennett were to be defeated at the convention or in a primary, the new GOP nominee would be heavily favored to keep the seat in Republican hands.

Bennett’s campaign did not return our requests for comment.

(Additional reporting by Christina Bellantoni.)