GOP History Defied as Sen. Bennett Beaten

The defeat of Utah Sen. Robert Bennett at a Republican state convention on Saturday defied political history.

Since the end of World War II, more than 60 Democratic U.S. senators have been denied re-nomination by their respective state parties.  Whether they were Southern “bourbons” such as Tennessee’s venerable Sen. Kenneth McKellar (ousted in 1952 by the namesake-father of Al Gore) to centrist Democrats who upset their liberal base such as Joe Lieberman of Connecticut who lost to an anti-war Democrat in the 2006 primary, (Lieberman was re-elected that year as an independent), quite a few Democratic senators have been dealt political death sentences by their own parties over the past 64 years.

Not so Republicans. Perhaps because they respect history and tradition, Republicans tend to give their incumbent senators the benefit of the doubt and keep them in office.  For all the liberal votes cast by and ill-will among conservatives generated by Pennyslvania’s Republican Sen. Arlen Specter by 2004, conservative Pat Toomey still fell short of taking him out in the primary.  (Specter, of course, is now running again as a Democrat).  

And from the stunning primary defeat of Wisconsin’s longtime Sen. Robert LaFollette in 1946 by a young Marine veteran named Joe McCarthy to the defeat Saturday of three-term Sen. Bennett of Utah,  Republicans have ousted their own sitting senators less than ten times in GOP primary contests over the last 64 years. That is why Bennett’s elimination as a candidate by delegates to the state GOP convention is so dramatic.  Republicans just don’t do this.  But after placing third on the first two ballots to the party conclave, the 76-year-old senator was eliminated from the competition.  Two candidates who ran to Bennett’s right—lawyer Mike Lee and businessman Tim Bridgewater—garnered 43% and 57% of the vote respectively on the third ballot.  With neither getting the 60% of the convention vote required for nomination, Lee and Bridgewater will square off in a primary this summer. 

The winner is almost certain to become the next senator from Utah, which last elected a Democrat to the Senate in 1970.  Bailout, Earmarks, Healthcare Finished Him Along with being a veteran senator and member of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, Bennett  is also the son of the late (and still revered) Sen. Wallace F. Bennett, who held the same seat from 1950-74.  As Bob Bennett once told me, his father faced intra-party challenges in all three of his re-election bids and always survived. 

As to why the current Sen. Bennett went down, the answer is a lesson to any Republican lawmaker running for re-election in 2010, an overall conservative voting record notwithstanding. Republican lawmakers will find themselves in peril if they “crossed the line” on what is being increasingly dubbed the “trifecta” on issues of spending and big government: bailouts, the economic stimulus package, and Obama-backed healthcare. Bennett compiled a respectable lifetime rating with the American Conservative Union (83%), not that much different from the Beehive State’s senior senator and his fellow Republican Orrin Hatch (89%). 

But Bennett also voted for the TARP funds to bailout the financial industry and, as ranking Republican on the water subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee, the Utahan fully embraced the concept of “bringing home the bacon”—that is, earmarks for his state.  The Club for Growth, which has earned considerable notoriety for highlighting the spending records of Republican lawmakers, weighed in against Bennett and issued a triumphant press release after his defeat. And while Bennett did not support Obama-backed healthcare reform, at one point in the debate he joined with arch-liberal Democrat Sen. Ron Wyden (Ore.) to offer a compromise package that many felt was watered-down “Obamacare.” 

As one veteran GOP activist e-mailed me after the convention vote, “Bennett looked as though he was ‘playing footsie’ with the Democrats on healthcare and that got angry [convention] delegates angrier."