Sen. Bennett Ousted At Utah GOP Convention

Tea party activists and others have been successful in getting delegates at the Utah GOP convention to reject three-term incumbent Sen. Bob Bennett's re-election bid. Bennett voted in favor of a Wall Street bailout, health care mandates and earmarks for his state.

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LYNN NEARY, host:

The tea party movement has claimed a victory. A sitting U.S. Senator, three-term Utah Republican Bob Bennett, was the first incumbent this year to be defeated. At a party convention Saturday, he came in third behind two conservative challengers, both of who had cultivated the support of the tea party movement.

The Utah system is unusual. And now Bennett's two challengers, Mike Lee and Tim Bridgewater, face each other in a runoff primary on June 22. Here to tell us more about the contest in Utah and the possible implications for other races this year, we're joined by NPR's national political correspondent, Mara Liasson.

Good to have you with us, Mara.

MARA LIASSON: Good to be here, Lynn.

NEARY: So first of all, why did Utah's Republican voters reject Bennett?

LIASSON: Well, the biggest reason was the TARP. He voted for the bank bailout, so did 30 other Republican senators, but he's the first one to pay the price. He also had the audacity to work across the lines. He sponsored a health care reform alternative bill with Ron Wyden, a Democrat senator from Oregon. He also was an ear marker. He sat on the appropriations committee, which used to be a good thing for incumbents. Now it's a mark against them.

But also Utah has this, as you said, unusual convention system. It gives more clout to ideological activists. But it also tells you - Bennett's defeat tells you - how strong the anti-incumbent sentiment is this year.

NEARY: And how wide is it, that sentiment? I mean, has the tea party shown strength in other recent Republican primaries?

LIASSON: Yes, it's shown strength. Doesn't always get its candidate nominated. In Indiana recently, there was another three way primary - two candidates again trying to claim the tea party mantle.

But Dan Coates, the former senator from Indiana, the establishment candidate there won, but not by much. So the tea parties are strong. They're a real sign of how energized the conservative base of the Republican Party is this year, but not always strong enough to prevail.

NEARY: Well, there are a lot of primaries coming up, so what should we be watching for?

LIASSON: Well, next Tuesday is Kentucky. It's a really interesting primary. You've got Rand Paul, the son of libertarian presidential candidate Ron Paul. He's the tea party candidate in the race, running against Tim Grayson, who's the establishment candidate.

And what's interesting there, is you have Mitch McConnell, the Republican minority leader in the Senate, endorsing Grayson; and Jim DeMint, South Carolina senator who's become kind of an alternative power center in the Senate, he wants to elect more conservative Republicans to the Senate. He's endorsing Paul.

Later on in June, you're going to get a senate primary in California trying to pick the candidate who will oppose Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer. There, Sarah Palin weighed in recently, and didn't endorse the tea party candidate conservative, Chuck DeVore. Instead, she endorsed Carly Fiorina.

Both DeVore and Carly Fiorina are running against a third candidate, Tom Campbell, who used to be described as a moderate Republican. In this race, he's the liberal Republican.

NEARY: So what does all this mean for the Democrat? How worried should they be?

LIASSON: Well, the Democrats should be worried because Republicans are so energized. But they've got two primaries coming up themselves. Two sitting U.S. senators - Blanche Lambert Lincoln in Arkansas, and Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania. Both of them have liberal challengers. Next Tuesday, there'll be primaries in both those states.

But I think the big story for the Democrats this year in these primaries is that turnout for Democrats, at least in Ohio, Indiana and North Carolina where we had primaries last week, are down. Republican turn out is up. It's yet another example of the intensity gap, how much more energized Republican voters are this year than Democratic voters.

NEARY: NPR's Mara Liasson. Thanks so much, Mara.

LIASSON: Thank you, Lynn.

(Soundbite of music)

NEARY: This is NPR News.

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