SALT LAKE CITY—In yet another sign of the Tea Party movement’s growing power, Utah Republicans delivered a crippling blow to three-term incumbent Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) by voting him off the GOP ticket for November’s race.
Bennett had been in the crosshairs of many Utah grassroots Tea Party activists who were angry at his stances on immigration and health care reform and his support for government rescues during the financial crisis. Bennett fell to candidates Mike Lee and Tim Bridgewater, who have both aligned themselves with the Tea Party movement.
“The people who said the Tea Partiers were just racist rabble that really have no impact, they’re wrong, “ said Enid Mickelsen, a former congresswoman and current state liaison to the Republican National Committee. “The Tea Partiers are here, and they are energetic. They are committed, and we need to be welcoming them and harnessing that instead of fighting against it.”
Some draped in the yellow, “Don’t Tread on Me” Gadsden U.S. revolution-era flag adopted by the Tea Party movement, the delegates delivered the blow to Bennett during the second of three rounds of balloting at the Utah Republican Party 2010 Nominating Convention. During the course of several hours, the nearly 3,500 delegates winnowed the field from eight to three then two candidates.
Bennett survived the first round of balloting but was cut during the second round of voting. Lee, an attorney and former Supreme Court clerk, and Bridgewater, a businessman and former advisor to former Gov. Jon Huntsman (R-Utah), will duel until the state Republican primary June 22.
Bennett made a last-minute plea to delegates gathered at the Salt Palace Convention Center downtown.
“Don’t take a chance on a newcomer; keep a veteran on the floor when you’re playing the championship game,” he said. “I want to do this again because the fire in my belly is burning brighter than ever. I yield to no one in my devotion for the Constitution.”
Bennett was introduced by former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a Mormon businessman who rescued the Salt Lake City Olympics and is wildly popular in Utah.
“Today, he faces an uphill battle at this convention,” Romney said. “Some may disagree with a handful of his votes or simply want a new face. But with the sweep and arrogance of the liberal onslaught today in Washington, we need Bob Bennett’s skill, and intellect and loyalty.”
Bennett far outraised his opponents, having raised $3.9 million compared to Bridgewater’s $366,000 and Lee’s nearly $153,000, according to The Center for Responsive Politics.
When asked by The Daily Caller whether he had been a victim of Tea Partiers, Bennett said “I have no idea.”
Utah Republican Party Chairman Dave Hansen defended the party system for nominating candidates, which has come under fire lately as favoring candidates that are more conservative than the party writ large. Polls show the delegates at Saturday’s convention, who were elected by their neighbors in March, are more conservative than most Utah Republicans.
“I want you to know that I strongly support the convention-caucus system,” Hansen said. “I think you are the best educated, best informed delegates who understand the issues.”
During their stump speeches, both Lee and Bridgewater hit on the themes of reducing federal government expansion and strengthening states’ rights.
Billing himself as “a constitutionalist who is also a capitalist,” Bridgewater touted his business background.
“I’m a small businessman who’s created jobs. I understand payroll, taxes trade and economics,” he said. “America can get back on track and it will get back on track, but we’ve got to get government out of the way first.”
Lee played a video endorsement from Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), a favorite among conservative activists.
“This election is about the constitution,” Lee said. “It’s about reclaiming our birthright to limited government. I invite all within the sound of my voice to reclaim their right to the federal government.”
Utah Republicans themselves appear deeply divided about who should take Bennett’s place. During the second round of balloting, Bridgewater narrowly edged out Lee by less than two percent.
“Lee scares me a little because I think he puts too much emphasis on saying everything is constitutional,” said Henry White, a delegate from West Jordan, Utah. “The Constitution is not a living document, it’s a document to live by.”
White, a Navy veteran, said he also took offense at recent comments by Lee during a townhall Q&A suggesting that U.S. troops in Afghanistan were weakening their efficacy by engaging in broader social missions like providing “meals on wheels.”
Delegate Joyce Bradford of Smithfield, a Lee supporter, said Bennett had taken Lee’s comments out of context. Lee had said the social missions detracted from the narrower mission of destroying enemies.
However, Bradford said she also liked Bridgewater and “wouldn’t be disappointed if either one wins” the primary.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), a freshman who is running for re-election without a GOP opponent, acknowledged the race had been hard-fought but plead for eventual Republican unity.
“We must walk out of here united, and then we’re going to do three things,” he said. “We’re going to fire Nancy Pelosi, and we’re going to get rid of Harry Reid, and we’re going to make sure Obama is a one-term president.”