Utah Sen. Bob Bennett May Not Survive Saturday's State GOP Convention

Bob Bennett campaign button

hide captionBennett, a conservative anywhere except in Utah, could be the first Senate incumbent casualty of 2010.

Stop me if you've heard this one before.

In this year of growing opposition to the Obama agenda and rising conservative and Tea Party anger, the first victim of this outrage is likely to be ... Bob Bennett?

The conservative three-term senator from Utah?  The one with the "A" rating from the National Rifle Association?  One of the American Conservative Union's "Senate Standouts?"  A 69 percent winner in his last re-election campaign?

Yep, that's the one.  

Since his first election in 1992, Bennett — son of the late Utah Sen. Wallace Bennett — has been a reliable, if colorless, conservative.  His problem:  He's more of a behind-the-scenes kind of guy.  He's not one to go on talk shows and denounce Obama's road to socialism.  And that's not what's playing this year, at least not in Utah.

Matt Canham's piece in yesterday's Salt Lake Tribune sums up Bennett's problems: 

Bennett, 76, is hearing from incensed Republican delegates that they want a fighter. They want someone to publicly and loudly combat what they see as the excesses of the Obama agenda. ...

Bennett is the rare politician who shuns canned speeches and talking points. He speaks almost exclusively off-the-cuff relying on the skills he honed as a successful college debater.

"I look at my colleagues who read everything and I say, 'I don't want to go there until I absolutely have to.' And when the time comes when I absolutely have to, I probably ought to think about getting out of the Senate," he said.

But as a consequence, he can be verbose, something he is aware of. That may be why he isn't on the A-list for 24-hour news networks or Sunday morning talk shows, but to be honest, he doesn't like those TV appearances anyway.

"They want a senator there they can scream at and try to make him look bad," Bennett said. "Combat for combat's sake is not something that appeals to me." ...

"He is not preachy. When he's got a point to make, he has a nice way of getting you to listen," [Senate GOP leader Mitch] McConnell said. "I've served with a lot of senators over the time I've been here, he is among the best liked, most conservative and most effective."

In fairness to Bennett's opponents, it's not that he's just low key.  His 2008 vote for the bank bailout bill, the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP), upset conservatives.  Nor did they like his across-the-aisle work with Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) on health care legislation, or his longtime defense of earmarks.  These have never been acceptable positions to those on the right, but they're especially egregious now.

A similar fate was met in 2008 by a Utah congressman, Chris Cannon.  He was, by any definition, a solid conservative.  But he did express support for the Bush/McCain position on immigration, and that did him in; he was clobbered in the GOP primary by Jason Chaffetz.

If we were talking about a primary, Bennett would most likely survive.  Polls show him to be quite popular statewide.  However, Utah's nominating procedure is different from most states.  He needs to win a minimum of 40 percent of the delegates to Saturday's (tomorrow's) state GOP convention in Salt Lake City ... if he is to qualify for the June 22 primary.  No 40 percent, no fourth term for Bennett.

And, at the looks of things now, he's not going to get it.  He seems to be stuck in third (or even fourth) place, with under 20 percent of the delegate vote.  Leading the pack is Mike Lee, an attorney and former law clerk to Samuel Alito; running second is business entrepreneur Tim Bridgewater

Listen to the NPR piece on Bennett's challenge by reporter Jenny Brundin of member station KUER, tonight on "All Things Considered."

Change The System?  It may be a little late for Bennett, but former Gov. Jon Huntsman (R) — now the ambassador to China — "said it might make sense" to end the convention system and determine the nominees via a primary.  According to an account by Salt Lake Tribune's Robert Gehrke, Huntsman said the problem with the convention is that it "focuses power in the hands of the party activists and doesn't represent the average Utahn."  A Tribune poll "found that the Republican delegates are more male, more Mormon, typically have different concerns and are more hostile toward Sen. Bob Bennett than the typical Republican or Utah voter."

But state GOP chair Dave Hansen says that while "he respects Huntsman's opinion," the big turnout at this year's caucuses — "more than double the turnout in 2008 — shows that the convention system 'does not preclude people from getting involved.'"

Democrats are also holding their state convention on Saturday, and the Senate nominee will be either Sam Granato or Chris Stout, neither of whom is a household name.

But the main interest is in the Republican battle.  Whether or not Bennett survives — and the guess here is that he does not — the GOP does not appear to be in jeopardy of losing the seat.  Utah hasn't elected a Democrat to the Senate since 1970.

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