Tea Party Triumph and Incumbents’ Warning? Utah GOP Convention Dumps Sen. Bob Bennett
If you hear a sound, it may be the clitter clatter of quaking of boots and knees among Republicans who don’t buy into the tea party movement — and incumbent office holders of both political parties everywhere. Because what seemed unthinkeable a few months ago is now reality: with a flourish and cheers after the politically bloody deed was done, the Utah GOP convention dumped Sen. Bob Bennett.
By most accounts, Bennett was considered a good, solid conservative. The problem was the “most” didn’t fit “all” and a portion of that “all” is what matters to a highly motivated part of the Republican party base that has decided it wants to count on politicians in office not to make deals, fraternize with the political enemy and fudge on declared principles. But there was far more here: his defeat was the most telling manifestation yet that there really is a “throw the bums out!” feeling this year that could gobble up incumbents of both parties. Suddenly, incumbency doesn’t look so totally terrific anymore.
Once-popular Sen. Bob Bennett fell victim to a growing national conservative movement with his stunning defeat at Utah’s GOP convention.
Delegates voted Saturday to bar the 76-year-old senator from seeking a fourth term, making him the first congressional incumbent to be ousted this year and demonstrates the challenges candidates face from the right in 2010.
Bennett was under fire for voting to bail out Wall Street, co-sponsoring a bipartisan bill mandating health insurance coverage and for aggressively pursuing earmarks.
“The political atmosphere obviously has been toxic, and it’s very clear that some of the votes that I have cast have added to the toxic environment,” Bennett told reporters Saturday, choking back tears.
“Looking back on them, with one or two very minor exceptions, I wouldn’t have cast any of them any differently, even if I had known at the time they were going to cost me my career.”
Bennett told The Associated Press he wouldn’t rule out a write-in candidacy. State law prohibits him from running as an independent.
Unlike the case of Florida’s Charlie Crist, it’s unlikely he’ll have much of a chance if he does so. When was the last time a state elected a write in candidate? And if past elections are any indication, if he runs as a write in he might compete with names alike “Spongebob Squarepants,” or “None of the Above” (which is a candidate that might WIN HANDILY if on ballots all over the country this year).
Some of the most insightful thinking into the minds of those who wanted to see Bennett booted out perhaps are seen in these three comments from readers on Glenn Reyolds’ popular InstaPundit site:
UPDATE: A reader emails: “If the establishment GOP lets itself become back biting spoilers, they are done. No one lives up to deals cut with back biters and spoilers. They don’t have to. They only need them to win, not govern. The GOP old guard need to find themselves a coalition to join. There is only one that has any momentum, and that actually believes the ideals the old guard has pretended to believe, the tea parties. Bennett could have joined them himself, but he chose to brazen it out.”
ANOTHER UPDATE: Reader Jim Verdolini writes: “His base told him pretty clearly they would not stand for TARP, spending, and ‘compromise’ Health Care Schemes. Bennett, like most of or ‘leadership’ ignored them. Now he is retired. Eventually republican ‘leadership’ will understand that they work for us. Till then they will become ever more extinct.”
MORE: Utah Tea Partier David Kirkham emails: “After convention we walked up on the podium and took this picture. We took over the Utah GOP. All of our candidates were elected today without having to go to a primary (or booted in the case of Bennett). Obama has awakened a sleeping giant.”
Go to the link to see the photo and another link to a conservative blog.
Bennett was tearful after being beaten, but said his tears came not because of the defeat but because he felt bad for his staff, most of whom were also crying.
Bennett could still attempt to run a write-in campaign, but Utah law prohibits him from appearing on the ballot as an independent because the deadline for that has passed. “We’ll see what the future may bring. When I have anything to say about that, you’ll be the second to know,” he told reporters.
But he made it sound like his 18-year career in the Senate is over. “I will congratulate whoever emerges,” he said
“It’s been a great ride and I am grateful to the people of Utah for giving me the opportunity,” Bennett said
The Club for Growth, a conservative group that spent nearly $200,000 against Bennett, also cheered his demise.
“Utah Republicans made the right decision today for their state, and sent a clear message that change is finally coming to Washington,” said club president Chris Chocola.
And, clearly, this was not a vote that has limited meaning: it may be the convention defeat heard all around the country — and will likely increase Tea Party movement clout. The Salt Lake City Tribune:
Julian Zelizer, a professor at Princeton University, said that while Bennett’s defeat may have been an anomaly attributable to Utah’s unique convention system, any time a long-serving incumbent is beaten it sends shock waves.
“I think all incumbents are nervous right now. The polls are just showing that voters are unhappy with Democrats or Republicans,” he said.
“It takes on a life of its own. His loss will energize tea partiers and others to take on others,” Zelizer said.
Sen. Orrin Hatch said he felt bad for his long-time colleague.
“He was a good senator, he was a good conservative,” Hatch said. “He’s got some very strong positions in there in the Senate and it took a while to get there. But you know, people are angry. They’re really upset at the way things are going and I think to a degree that’s what hurt him.”
Here’s a roundup of old and new media reaction to Bennett’s defeat and the Tea Party movement’s triumph:
—The Salt Lake City Tribune’s Peg McEntee:
Even though the polls had taken a hard right turn against Bob Bennett, it still was a bit surreal to see him knocked out of the U.S. Senate race.
This is a guy who took the office in 1992, the same year Bill Clinton did, and was twice re-elected. I can’t say I agreed with his politics, but I do think he’s an honest Republican who stuck to his principles.
All that was undone during Saturday’s Republican state convention, which seethed with an anti-incumbent, anti-Obama-Reid-Pelosi rancor. When Bennett lost, the yips and howls from thousands of delegates sounded like coyotes going after one of their own.
Left standing were Mike Lee and Tim Bridgewater, both Utah County Republicans who like the tea partiers and 9/12ers just fine…..
….It’s also clear that the anti-incumbent fervor across the nation will change Congress in ways that can’t be completely clear now. If Utah politics are any harbinger, the national trend will be more bloody-minded than ever.
And that would imperil whatever unity the United States needs in a time of joblessness, rampant home foreclosures, renegade banks, out-of-control health care costs and two astonishingly expensive wars.
It’s like Mother always told us: “Be careful what you wish for. You just might get it.”
And so Bennett lost. Should other solidly conservative incumbent or establishment Republicans be scared? Yes and no.
The truth is, Bennett would not have lost anywhere other than Utah. For starters, it’s the reddest state in the nation, so what’s considered “conservative enough” there is a little further to the right than what’s considered conservative enough in hotbeds of liberalism like, say, Texas or Alabama (i.e., everywhere else). Secondly, a major D.C. advocacy group, the Club for Growth, decided to spend a whopping $200,000 to ensure Bennett’s defeat–the kind of intraparty hit that the Club can only afford to carry out in one or two races per cycle. And thirdly–and most importantly–Utah doesn’t actually let its Republican residents vote on a full slate of Republican candidates.
….Which brings us to what Bennett’s fellow conservatives should be scared of. Yes, the nation is in an angry, anti-incumbent mood. But such angst typically hasn’t been enough to sink folks like Bennett. In Indiana last week, former Sen. Dan Coats defeated a pair of Tea-flavored rivals, much like Illinois’s Kirk before him; earlier this year in Texas, all 11 of incumbent House Republicans facing challengers emerged victorious. Post-Bennett, the thing that Republicans should fear isn’t the Tea Party. It is–to paraphrase a famous liberal–fear itself. The more that incumbents run from their records–the more they flip-flop, the more they dissemble, the more they flinch–the more vulnerable they become (see: McCain, John). Instead, they should simply lay out what they’ve done and what they believe in, then submit to be judged accordingly. In the vast majority of cases, this should be sufficient. After all, it usually takes more than 160 votes to lose a nomination.
It’s on. The first incumbent of the 2010 election year crashed and burned Saturday, and there’s ample cause for alarm for officeholders everywhere.
There was no personal scandal, no whiff of corruption, no silver bullet here.
Republican Sen. Robert Bennett was one of the most powerful and likable members of the Senate, he diligently protected Utah’s interests from his post in GOP leadership and he funneled millions of dollars back to his state as an appropriator.
But Utah Republicans didn’t care. In fact, that’s exactly why they tossed him out Saturday in a humbling second ballot vote at the state party convention.
The circumstances surrounding his downfall were unique to Utah with its state convention process, yet there was an unmistakable message to incumbents on both sides of the aisle: This is no ordinary year, and the ordinary, time-honored methods of winning votes may not be enough.
For Republicans who are measuring the drapes in anticipation of reclaiming power, Bennett’s loss should be sobering. If the anti-Washington and tea party winds keep blowing this strong, some of them could be measuring their own political graves.
As for implications, well, here’s an obvious one: Senator Bob Bennett just discovered that you can’t be from Utah and vote like you’re from Kentucky.
Bennett’s unforgivable Senate sins were, according to local party
hacksofficials, daring to consider any form of health care reform, his TARP vote and other ideological votes around constitutional issues like the flag burning amendment. Despite Mitt Romney’s endorsement, party purists coalesced around the money and the tea party take-no-prisoners doctrine, respectively.
It’s the first time in 70 years that a Utah party has dumped an incumbent, the Desert News reports…
….Bottom line: conservatives and Tea Partiers succeed in ousting a sitting, three-term senator with an 83.6 lifetime vote rating from the American Conservatives Union because he’s not conservative enough, after he worked prominently with Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden on health care in the past several years (on a proposal that included a universal mandate) and voted for TARP.
The tea partiers say that Bennett isn’t conservative enough, a rather shocking claim when you look at his various scores and ratings. The National Right to Life Center gives him a 100; the ACLU gives him a 0. The American Conservatives Union gives him an 84 and the Family Research Council an 88; the AFL-CIO gives him a 9 and the AFSCME a 0. Oh, what’s that you say? Tea partiers are fiscal, not social, conservatives? Okay, then how ’bout that 100 score from the US Chamber of Commerce, or the 90 from Americans for Tax Reform?
These numbers lend credibility to Bennett’s position that his crime was not being too “liberal” but rather not being outspoken enough in his opposition to those different than him.
Expect a blizzard of holds, hours of filibuster on the floor, and support from Republicans like Hatch and McConnell, who are now more than a little afraid of being reduced to tears at post-convention press conferences.
But Bennett’s brand of conservatism was not pure enough for the Tea Party wing of his party. He committed sins such as voting for the Troubled Asset Relief Program. He was, horror of horrors, an appropriator — meaning that he helped to bring money to his state. The conservative Club for Growth spent more than $200,000 to oust him.
The most disturbing aspect of Bennett’s defeat is the chastening effect it is likely to have on nervous GOP lawmakers. They are already hardly profiles in courage — just take a look at the campaign positions adopted by ex-maverick John McCain, facing a primary challenge in Arizona from former Rep. J.D. Hayworth.
Seeing Bennett’s scalp is not apt to strengthen their spines.
The game was redefined in a single place and time from “one of Republicans versus Democrats” (Romney’s reference) to that of “Small Government versus Big Government”. In isolation the Bennett defeat is insignificant, but it now raises the wider question of whether the ‘Smaller Government’ idea can catch on. If it does then it has the potential to redefine the political landscape in ways that are both a threat and opportunity to different communities.
The Tea Parties represent an asymmetric threat to political organizations optimized for party-line warfare. The threat is no longer across the aisle but outside the building. As such, two possibilities suggest themselves. The first is that the Washington elite will circle the wagons, bury their minor differences and concentrate on keeping the money and power flowing to the capital. A threat from outside the building is after all, a threat to everybody inside the building. The other possibility is that enough members of the elite will realize that jig is up and strive to accommodate themselves to the new reality. In the coming months we are likely to see both gambits. Some politicians will opt to tap the tide; others will seek to master it.
…The evolution of the Tea Party “threat” in the media has followed the classic trajectory of recognizing asymmetric threats: it was at first dismissed, then denigrated, then patronizingly understood and is now going through the stage of being set up as a national security threat boogeyman, when as it turns out, its main effect so far has been to eliminate a three-term Republican candidate for Senator. At some point the Washington insiders will understand they are facing a real, bona fide political challenge. But although the elite may go out clinging with their fingernails to the carpets of their offices their real enemy will always be not the Tea Partiers but the repo men. It’s the lack of money that will be their ultimate downfall.
Small government conservatives bagged a big one yesterday, while cutting Sen. Bob Bennett’s ego down to size, making sure one big time Republican insider couldn’t even get through the state convention. But let’s face it, folks, if Tea Party activists cannot win in super conservative Utah where will they win?
Mitt Romney endorsed Sen. Bennett, offering an interesting back drop to this political story, once again cementing Romney’s Republican establishment credentials at a time when they don’t matter. In the long run it simply sets up an interesting question dynamic of what pairing for 2012 will satisfy the conservative base.
Bennett’s defeat marks the first time a sitting Senator has lost in an intraparty fight since 2006 when Sen. Joe Lieberman was ousted by wealthy businessman Ned Lamont in the Democratic primary. Lieberman went on to run and win as an independent; under state law Bennett cannot pursue that course.
It also marks the first major victory for the conservative wing of the Republican party, which has organized itself under the banner of the Tea Party movement to protest what they believe to be a government run amok.
Bennett, a reliable conservative on most issues, had repeatedly expressed exasperation at his predicament — insisting that the ideological right’s issues with him were less about his record and more about the tone he struck during the partisan warfare in Washington.
Tea party supporters from across the nation had targeted Bennett as part of the problem in Washington and, with his defeat, are almost certain to be further energized to beat other GOP incumbents and candidates who they feel are not representing the core values of the party.
Utah Senator Bob Bennett, a reliable conservative vote on almost every issue was, nevertheless, defeated in his attempt to be nominated by his party to seek a fourth Senate term. Bennett has an 84% rating from the American Conservative Union, and a 98% rating from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, but is apparently too liberal for his ever-right-leaning party…
…Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, George H. W. Bush and, yes Ronald Reagan, who cut and run from Lebanon, would be considered liberals according to today’s Republican party.
If speeches at the convention were any indication, Utah Republicans found Bennett unacceptable for two main reasons: his support for the Bush administration’s TARP bill in 2008, and his willingness to work on a bipartisan health care reform bill — the Wyden/Bennett “Health Americans Act” — that enjoyed support from several conservative Republicans, but never actually received a vote. These hardly-outrageous departures from the far-right line led Tea Partiers, the Club For Growth, and others in the party base to deem Bennett unacceptable, despite his consistently conservative voting record.
…As for the bigger picture, Bennett’s convention defeat is yet another reminder of a Republican Party that has very little tolerance for those who fail to toe the right-wing line in every instance. The examples keep piling up — Arlen Specter, Dede Scozzafava, Charlie Crist — and the “purge” is likely not complete. The goal, apparently, is to create a smaller, more rigid, less reasonable party, which discourages diversity of thought.
Utah’s results also send a message to Republican lawmakers who might consider constructive lawmaking: don’t do it. The GOP base doesn’t want responsible leaders who’ll try to solve problems; it wants hard-right ideologues.
Although a dramatic development in a state which rarely makes political headlines, my guess is that people are going to read a bit too much into the national implications of this. The 3,500 delegates who select Utah’s Republican candidates — chosen at local precinct meetings — are highly informed and extremely conservative activists who are not representative of Utah Republicans as a whole nor the Republican primary electorates in other states. Some polling has suggested that Bennett would have been favored to win a conventional primary, although there were no guarantees.
The two prospective Democratic nominees, Sam Granato and Christopher Stout, are inexperienced. In such a ruby-red state, they are unlikely to pose much threat to Lee or Bridgewater in the general election.
Bennett’s not the only one with egg on his face after today’s votes. Mitt Romney endorsed Bennett’s bid for re-election and introduced him at the convention, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell endorsed him as well. Sen. Orrin Hatch tried rounding up delegates for Bennett at the convention. However, the state’s GOP leadership declined to publicly back him and worked to keep the national party out of the convention fight as well.
This shows that the Tea Party movement isn’t about restoring a Republican status quo. The movement’s activists want real change, and real action to reverse the growth of government and the profligate spending that has gone on for far too long in Washington DC. Republican incumbents nationwide should consider this a wake-up call.
In Utah, winning the GOP nomination is usually akin to winning the general election. That doesn’t happen in most states. So, in other states, let’s have more of the teabaggers taking over the GOP and nominating candidates who are way outside the mainstream. Be helpful if they nominate Rand Paul in Kentucky on May 18th.
All this is a reminder that the Tea Party has become an endlessly metastasizing cancer dominating and adopting the name of a grass-roots fiscal conservative coalition which began the movement over a year ago.
Thanks to Fox, those poor folks still have Sarah Palin to play and dance with. She’s the sop thrown to them by the Washington political operators who have coopted their movement. The growing coalition of corporate and political sponsors has overwhelmed the village commons or, as they like to say, “Main Street America,” to the extent that when the press, like WaPo, reports on the “Tea Party,” what it’s actually writing about is Freedom Works.
It’s time to forget about “Main Street America” and, indeed, Republican candidates like Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul. They are so yesterday. Freedom Works, thanks to one former Republican member of Congress, is the new Republican party.
If you recall, Bennett stood up to applaud Barack Obama when Obama’s safety net, his teleprompter, delivered to him word for word an unprecedented and undignified attack on Governor Palin during an address to a joint session of Congress last September. Hopefully after today, last September will be one of the last times that Bennett will ever be able to stand and applaud an extreme and radical partisan like Barack Obama as a member of Congress.
But while in the short term, the now lame-duck Bennett might be freed up for a vote with Democrats here or there, over the long haul Republicans will now be even more frightened that, if they don’t move hard to the right, they will suffer the same fate. Illogical as that may sound, the Bennett ejection holds a powerful message that the far right of the GOP has taken over.
In a state as conservative as Utah, there is no reason why a RINO like Robert Bennett should have ever been the Senator.
Let this be a lesson to all Republicans … just because you are in incumbent RINO does not give you a free pass to another term. Hint, Lindsey Graham in SC and Corker & Alexander of TN. If you want to act like a RINO is a predominantly conservative state, you shall face the consequences.
This is not only a humiliating end to Bennett’s career in not being able to make it out of the second round and a victory for conservatives, but also a seminal moment for the Tea Party folks and the establishment GOP.The Tea Party is not for the status quo Republican is shows no qualities of what a GOP candidate is supposed to represent.
Bennett clearly did not get it. The nation is in no mood for spendthrifts and he voted for more spending. Bringing in Mitt Romney was even more of a mistake because it only reminded people of his involvement with healthcare. Plus Romney is not someone you call upon to buck up your conservative bona fides.
Bennett’s loss will serve as a nice reminder to Republicans up for election that now it not the time to go soft and that past votes can come back to bite you in the butt.
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