SALT LAKE CITY — Sen. Bob Bennett's 18-year career in the U.S. Senate could well end in the state GOP convention in two weeks, a broad-ranging new poll of Republican state delegates by the Deseret News and KSL-TV shows.
The Dan Jones & Associates survey, which is also sponsored by the Utah Foundation and the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics, shows that Bennett, R-Utah, faces a big challenge among the 3,500 Republican delegates who will vote on him and seven other GOP Senate candidates May 8.
Just one key number from the Jones survey: 41 percent of the delegates said they absolutely will not vote for Bennett.
GOP convention rules say the ultimate second-place finisher must have at least 40 percent of the delegate vote to avoid final elimination. And the survey shows Bennett may not reach that percentage in the three rounds of voting.
No U.S. senator from Utah has been run out of office before a general election — defeated in either in a party primary or convention — since the early 1940s.
Hearing the poll results, Bennett said, "It appears this is a two-man race" between himself and attorney Mike Lee.
Despite the hard road at the convention, which Bennett said he recognizes, he's still confident he'll survive to a June GOP primary. "I'd be in good shape there," he added.
A Bennett defeat in the party convention could have far-reaching impacts.
It could change future major elective races in Utah, with candidates paying even greater attention to delegates.
And among the general public it could raise the question of whether the current convention-primary system used by both the Republican and Democratic parties is actually a fair and open process.
Bennett leads voters
While Bennett is in trouble with delegates, he has the lead among Senate candidates among registered Utah voters, although his support there is historically low for a Republican incumbent. According to the Jones poll of Utah voters, Bennett has 27 percent support, while Lee has 9 percent. Businessman Sam Granato, the leading Democrat, is favored by only 5 percent of voters, Jones found.
A large 38 percent of voters are undecided.
Among just registered Republicans, Bennett has the lead with 32 percent of the vote, Lee finishing second with 12 percent. Thirty-five percent of GOP voters are undecided, Jones said.
Thus, should Bennett be eliminated in the convention, he could argue that the GOP is only hurting itself by booting out the leading overall candidate — and the leading GOP contender — according to the vote of 3,500 Republican delegates, who may not be representing the will of the people.
Jones' poll of state GOP delegates shows the incumbent's real convention problems:
Only 21.5 percent of delegates say Bennett should be re-elected to another term. The question is called a "naked re-elect" because none of his challengers are named. In general, an incumbent wants to be above 50 percent in a "naked re-elect" number. Bennett's showing for a well-known officeholder on that question is quite poor.
Jones found that 59.5 percent of delegates said Bennett should not serve another term.
Asked their first choice in the Senate race, 31.2 percent of the delegates favored Lee; 21.5 percent said Bennett; with 17.1 percent choosing businessman Tim Bridgewater.
The other GOP candidates drop off after those top three. Just over 13 percent of delegates are still undecided.
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