Republicans in Utah direct anger at former party favorite Bennett
SALT LAKE CITY -- Delivering the opening prayer of the Beaver County Republican Convention recently, cattle rancher Gilbert Yardley prayed for Utah to elect "honest" people to Congress -- anybody to replace "the bunch we have in there now."
Sen. Robert F. Bennett was in the room, hoping to persuade state delegates to nominate him at the May 8 GOP convention. A friend seated next to Bennett leaned in to whisper the obvious: "I don't think he's one of yours."
It's no surprise that anger at Washington and Congress is coursing through Republican circles, much of it driven by "tea party" activists. What took party leaders by surprise is that the anger here is directed not at President Obama, but squarely at Bennett. With a flurry of state primaries scheduled in the coming weeks, defeating Bennett could become a rallying point for anti-incumbent fervor elsewhere.
"You've been there a while, you haven't fixed it," Garn McMullin, a small-business owner angry about the spiraling costs of Social Security, said to Bennett at the Salt Lake County convention last weekend. "Convince me as a delegate if it hasn't happened yet, why I should believe you'll make it happen now."
Bennett readily admits that he is in deep trouble. By all accounts, his best hope is to emerge from the state convention in second place among eight candidates. If he draws more than 40 percent of delegate votes, he and the winner will face off in a June primary. Bennett's campaign cash and name then could give him an advantage with the less intense electorate of a primary.
But first Bennett has to get that 40 percent. In a dimly lighted high school auditorium in suburban Provo on Saturday, about 1,000 Republicans cheered wildly when candidate Mike Lee, the son of a former president of Brigham Young University, asked whether they thought Congress was broken.
They hooted with approval when another candidate, marketing executive Cherilyn Eagar, called for the abolition of the departments of education and energy and the Environmental Protection Agency. And they went nuts when a third challenger, entrepreneur Tim Bridgewater, threw this red meat their way: "There's been a lot of talk about term limits. I'm working on a term limit for Senator Bennett right now!"
According to a poll published Sunday by local news outlets, 41 percent of convention delegates say they will not vote for Bennett; Lee holds the lead by a wide margin.
Bennett's detractors point to his support for then-President George W. Bush's immigration amnesty proposal and the financial bailouts of banks and auto companies, as well as Bennett's authorship, with Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden (Ore.), of a health-care proposal that included an individual mandate. Critics are also upset with Bennett for having pledged, during his first campaign in 1992, to serve only two terms (he is seeking his fourth).
"The whole reason I started the Tea Party of Utah was because of Bob Bennett," said David Kirkham of Provo, a convention delegate who said he is torn between voting for Lee or Bridgewater.
Kirkham's group, and the tea-party-affiliated Utah Rising and 9.12 movements, have been particularly active in opposing Bennett. All seven of his opponents are courting these groups heavily.
"There's a lot of frustration among Republicans who feel that the party lost the moral high ground on fiscal issues during the Bush years," said Utah Gov. Gary R. Herbert (R), who is officially neutral in the race. "He gets the broad brush because he was there. This is a perfect storm against him that's kind of unique to our times."