Utah Republicans rejected Senator Robert Bennett’s bid to be nominated for a fourth term, making him the party’s first Senate incumbent this year to fall to a conservative insurgency.
Bennett lost in voting yesterday at the state Republican convention, eliminated in the second round of balloting with almost 27 percent of the vote, losing to businessman Tim Bridgewater and lawyer Mike Lee, who was backed by small-government, low-tax activists.
Utah Republicans will now hold a primary election June 24 to select their nominee. A third round of balloting gave Bridgewater 57 percent of the vote and Lee almost 43 percent. Under the party’s procedures, a candidate must win at least 60 percent of the convention vote to automatically receive the Republican nomination.
“It’ll be a wide open primary now,” Utah state Senator Michael Waddoups said in a telephone interview. Voters were sending the message that they wanted changes, such as less spending by the government, he said.
Bennett, 76, was first elected in 1992. He is the first Senate Republican to be defeated this year for re-election. Other Republican candidates have run into opposition from the party’s conservative wing.
“Robert Bennett has been a great senator for us,” Waddoups said, adding, “We don’t like much of what is going on in Washington. People are upset.”
Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania switched to the Democratic Party after former Representative Pat Toomey entered the Republican primary against him.
Former Representative J.D. Hayworth is trying to oust Senator John McCain, the party’s 2008 presidential nominee, in Arizona’s Republican primary. Rand Paul, son of Texas Representative Ron Paul, is challenging Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell’s preferred candidate, Trey Grayson, for the U.S. Senate nomination in Kentucky.
In Florida, Governor Charlie Crist pulled out of the Republican primary to run as an independent rather than oppose former state House Speaker Marco Rubio for the party’s Senate nomination.
“There is frustration among conservatives about the party leadership,” said Nathan Gonzales, political editor for the Rothenberg Political Report, a Washington-based publication that tracks congressional races. “Republicans are in the minority. They’re going through a time of wandering in the wilderness and looking for their next direction. To many people, that means a change in leadership or a change in their current representation.”
Bennett won his first Senate race with 55 percent of the vote and got at least 64 percent in two subsequent campaigns. He drew opposition from conservatives who criticized his vote for the 2008 bank bailout and a Medicare prescription drug benefit in 2003 that increased the deficit.
“The American people are waking up and not allowing these elected officials to get away with what they were getting away with before, which is expanding the role of government,” said Lee’s deputy campaign manager, Dan Hauser.