Steve C. Wilson/AP
Utah Sen. Bob Bennett thanks his volunteers and family after being voted out of office by delegates at the 2010 Utah GOP Convention on Saturday.
Utah Sen. Bob Bennett thanks his volunteers and family after being voted out of office by delegates at the 2010 Utah GOP Convention on Saturday. Steve C. Wilson/AP
Republican Bob Bennett, a long-standing member of the U.S. Senate, was ousted by staunch conservatives and the nationwide Tea Party movement at the Utah GOP convention Saturday.
Bennett did all he could do to salvage his Senate seat, enlisting the help of the former Republican presidential candidate and Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who introduced him to delegates Saturday morning. Bennett himself gave a rousing speech in which he told delegates, "I hear you."
But it was not enough, and it was too late.
Bennett's failure to make it into Utah's GOP primary — let alone win his party's nomination — makes him the first congressional incumbent to be ousted this year and demonstrates the difficult challenges candidates are facing from the right in 2010.
"The political atmosphere obviously has been toxic, and it's very clear that some of the votes that I have cast have added to the toxic environment," an emotional Bennett told reporters, choking back tears.
"Looking back on them, with one or two very minor exceptions, I wouldn't have cast any of them any differently even if I had known at the time they were going to cost me my career."
Bennett, who was first elected to the Senate in 1992, survived a first round of voting Saturday among roughly 3,500 delegates but was a distant third in the second round. He garnered just under 27 percent of the vote. Businessman Tim Bridgewater had 37 percent and attorney Mike Lee got 36 percent.
Bennett's endorsements by the National Rifle Association and Romney did little to stave off anger from delegates. The three-term incumbent had been part of the controversial bank bailout and was viewed as part of the same-old system in Washington, D.C.
"The bailout bothers me. That in and of itself is unforgivable in my opinion," said delegate Scott White, a 58-year-old general contractor from Taylorsville.
Bennett had also been under fire for co-sponsoring a bipartisan bill mandating health insurance coverage and for aggressively pursuing earmarks for his state.
His opponents said he wasn't conservative enough for ultraconservative Utah, and lined up seven GOP contenders against him. They called for fiscal restraint and an end to big government.
Lee and Bridgewater will face each other in a June 22 primary after a third round of voting in which neither got the 60 percent necessary to win outright.