Utah's Sen. Bob Bennett On His Primary Defeat

Sen. Bob Bennett of Utah was denied his bid for a fourth term over the weekend. He was removed from the ballot at a Republican convention dominated by activists in the Tea Party movement. Michele Norris talks to the senator about his loss, and what it means.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

The spring primaries provide a window into the mood of the electorate in the lead-up to the fall midterm elections. Conventional wisdom holds that Democrats will face strong challenges from Republicans who have used the battles over health care and government spending to fire up their base. But Republicans are not immune from an anti-incumbent bias.

Case in point: Senator Bob Bennett of Utah was denied his bid for a fourth term over the weekend. He was removed from the ballot at a Republican convention dominated by activists in the Tea Party movement.

Earlier today, I asked Senator Bennett for his take on what happened.

Senator BOB BENNETT (Republican, Utah): Looking back on it now and trying to be as analytical about it as I can - and I've been in an awful lot of conventions in Utah, an awful lot of elections in Utah - this was over the night of the caucuses.

The normal turnout for caucuses in Utah is between 25 and 35,000. This time we had 75,000, and they swamped all of the normal kinds of political structures. The anti-incumbent feeling was so strong that I'm not sure we could attribute it to any one vote or any one issue.

But I found if I could sit down with the delegates, one on one, or more appropriately maybe 15 on one or 20 on one because I held many small meetings, I could turn them around. I could talk them through the TARP vote. I could talk them through the health care issue. But my problem was I couldn't get them to come hear me at all. No matter how many times I offered to buy them dinner or go to the pancake house for breakfast, they simply wouldn't come.

NORRIS: About one-third of the Utah GOP convention delegates were part of the Tea Party movement. Did you do a good enough job as a senator of representing their interest? Many of them felt like they were ignored by Washington, even by the representatives within their own party.

Sen. BENNETT: When you talk to them and said, well, what did I do that didn't represent you, there was never - other than, well, you voted for TARP and that was unconstitutional - as I say, I could talk that one through with them, and oh, well, maybe you did the right thing. Someone would say I'm not troubled about TARP. You've just been there too long.

NORRIS: What do you make of that? How do you respond to someone who feels like you've been there too long?

Sen. BENNETT: There really is no response. Some of my supporters would report conversations they would have. One in particular said to this woman: Who are you voting for? She said: I'm voting for Cherilyn Eager. Why? Well, she loves the Constitution. All right, Senator Bennett loves the Constitution. Yeah, but Cherilyn Eager loves it more. And finally, my supporter said, well, I guess there's nothing I can say to you. And they said no, because I want somebody who really, really loves the Constitution.

NORRIS: You know, when people say you've been in Washington too long, it seems like you as an incumbent could point to buildings and bridges and other things that you've delivered for your state.

Sen. BENNETT: Yeah, they hate that.

NORRIS: They didn't like that?

Sen. BENNETT: No, they hate that, yeah. It's because you have been there so long, you have focused solely on bringing things home to Utah, and we don't want somebody who's going to bring home the bacon. We want somebody who will represent our values.

And then, of course, there's a failure to understand I had this conversation a lot why didn't you kill Obamacare? Well, you know, politics is a team sport, and you need 51 votes. We have - you're a senator. You have power, and you did not use that power. You let Obama pass that plan. And that's because you're part of that Washington apparatus, and you're part of that old boys' club where everybody gets along. You didn't stand there and fight. If you had really fought, you could have killed Obamacare. And I say, well, the reality is that I couldn't. They won't buy that.

NORRIS: What's the message here to other incumbents? I mean, you had the backing from some of the party's highest-wattage personalities: Mitt Romney, Karl Rove, Newt Gingrich, Senator Mitch McConnell. You had a very large war chest, and in the end, it didn't make a difference. So what's the message to other incumbents who are facing a similar anti-incumbent bias?

Sen. BENNETT: I'm a little reluctant to make that statement because I think every state is probably different.

NORRIS: Let me ask you this: Is the senior senator from Utah, Orrin Hatch, in trouble?

Sen. BENNETT: If he were running in this year, facing the same delegates who voted on me, the answer is clearly yes.

NORRIS: It must be particularly difficult for you, though. I mean, your father served. As I understand it, you sit at his desk.

Sen. BENNETT: Yes. I don't need to be a senator to validate my personality. And I was asked on the convention, after I had lost: Would you change any of your votes? And sure, you'll always think of a vote or two you'd change here or there but none of the major ones. I wouldn't change my vote on TARP. I wouldn't change my work on health care. TARP, I think it genuinely saved the country, if not the world, from a major meltdown. And if I had known at the time I was casting those votes that they would cost me my career, I would have cast them the same way.

NORRIS: Senator Bennett, it's been good to talk to you. Thank you very much.

Sen. BENNETT: Thank you so much.

NORRIS: That was Senator Bob Bennett, a Republican of Utah.

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