As Bennett goes, so goes the GOP?

Stephen Richer Law Student, University of Chicago
Font Size:

It’s not very often that Utah is a topic of conversation in Washington, D.C. Only when a high-profile polygamist is on the run or when the Jazz are in the playoffs do my friends ask about my home state.

But as of late, I’ve frequently been summoned as an expert Utahn to discuss Sen. Bob Bennett’s (R-Utah) upcoming election. In the eyes of my D.C. Republican compatriots (all 25 of us), Bennett’s election is one of the most important 2010 elections because it’s a microcosm for the battle over the Republican Party. Depending on your preferred terminology, this is a battle between: the moderates vs. the right-wing; the David Brooks(s) and David Frums(s) vs. the Glenn Beck(s) and Rush Limbaugh(s); the New England Republicans vs. the Southern Republicans; Big Tent Republicans vs. Small Tent Republicans; the reformers vs. the preservers; or the limited-government conservatives vs. conservative paternalists.

Washington spectators put Sen. Bennett in the modernizing and moderating corner of the ring, and put his challengers in the corner of the far right, next to Sarah Palin. As this Utah bout goes, so will go the entire fight for the Republican Party in 2010 and 2012.

I normally celebrate any opportunity to unite two of my favorite subjects—Republicanism and Utah—but the Bennett microcosm model doesn’t hold. The battle over the direction of the Republican Party is very real, but the 2010 Utah senatorial election has little to say about it.

There are two reasons for this. The first is the system by which Utah Republicans advance to the general election. In May 2010, Republican delegates—3,500 of them—will cast ballots for any of the Republican contenders. If a candidate receives 60 percent or more of the ballots, he wins the nomination. Otherwise, the top two candidates enter a primary in which all Utah Republicans can vote.

It doesn’t take a statistician to see that this sampling is not representative of the United States. Utahns are blonder, taller and better-looking than the average American, and we’re also significantly more Republican (Utah has not voted for a Democratic president since Johnson beat Goldwater in 1964). In the primary, only registered Republicans can vote, and only active and staunch Republicans become delegates in the state convention. In short, only the most Republican from a thoroughly red state will name the eventual Republican candidate.

The microcosm theory also fails because Bennett doesn’t represent the moderate wing of the Republican Party. Yes, Bennett has been attacked by the Club For Growth and other far right wing groups for his support of the $700 billion bailout of the financial industry and his position on a 2007 immigration bill, but these are only two blemishes on one of the most consistently conservative records in the United States Senate.

Prior to his bailout vote, Bennett ranked among the top senators according to conservative groups such as the American Conservative Union and the Christian Coalition. And more recently, Bennett has positioned himself as an unbending conservative by sounding out against Obama’s appointments, the auto bailout, and further economic stimulus measures. Finally, if Bennett’s conservatism is found wanting, it is not because of his social policies—the point which distinguishes many moderate Republicans. Spectators are trying to make this race into a contest between Rudy Guiliani and Mike Huckabee, when it is more analogous to Sarah Palin verse Mike Huckabee—two conservatives of a similar mold.

In the end, the 2010 Utah Senate election will say little beyond Utah. All politics is local. I guess I’ll just have to wait for 2010 Western Conference Finals to again discuss Utah in Washington, D.C.

Stephen Richer shares a birthday with Napoleon and Justice Stephen Breyer, and he is a redhead like Thomas Jefferson and Winston Churchill. As such, he harbors illusions of grandeur that have largely gone unrealized. Stephen is the Director of Outreach at a Washington, D.C.-based legal think tank.