SALT LAKE CITY — To campaign in Utah for his political life, embattled Sen. Bob Bennett missed more roll call votes this year than all but two other senators — and they endured long hospital stays.
Bennett missed 36 of the 131 Senate roll call votes so far this year as of Wednesday, for a 72 percent voting rate.
Also, 31 of those missed votes have come since the week before the March 23 GOP caucuses that elected state delegates. He has a 62 percent voting rate since then as he campaigned especially hard against the seven Republicans challenging him.
In comparison, 93 senators have voting rates higher than 90 percent — and 52 senators had either perfect voting records or missed just one vote this year.
The only senators with voting rates lower than Bennett are 90-year-old Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.V., at 50 percent for the year, and Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., at 57 percent. Both were hospitalized for weeks for serious infections.
Bennett said missing the votes did not hurt his party. "Most of the (missed) votes are either routine or where my presence would not change the outcome," he told the Deseret News.
He said he told Republican leaders, "If there is any close vote or important vote where I am needed, I am only an airplane ride away and will be back whenever you call."
He added that many of the missed votes were on Democratic moves to stop a Republican filibuster of a financial industry overhaul bill. "Not being there is the same as voting no," he said, because Democrats need to achieve 60 votes to cut off such GOP filibusters.
Bennett was not in Washington on Wednesday and missed four roll call votes — two on noncontroversial confirmation of judges, and two on amendments to the financial industry overhaul bill. Bennett said he explained his stand on that bill to leaders, and told them he would fly in if his vote would make any difference on the amendments.
Instead of voting in Washington on Wednesday, Bennett participated in two debates in Utah and had interviews with CNN and Fox News as his race and vulnerability have gained national attention. "CNN and Fox think the action is here, and not in Washington, and so do I," Bennett said.
Bennett during the campaign has sometimes taken extraordinary measures to campaign and be in Washington.
For example on April 21, he spent the day in Utah campaigning including appearing at an evening debate before the Log Cabin Republicans. He caught a 1 a.m. flight afterward, made connections in Atlanta, and arrived in Washington for a 10 a.m. hearing where he grilled the head of NASA over a proposal that would eliminate 2,000 jobs in Utah.
After the hearing, he flew back to Utah for more campaigning. "That's the only time I flew out and back the same day," Bennett said, but added he has flown out one day and flew back the next several times.
While it is not unusual for candidates to miss extra votes while in a tough campaign (for example, President Barack Obama participated in only about a quarter of the Senate votes while running for president), Bennett's low voting rate is bringing attacks from a Bennett nemesis, the national conservative group Club for Growth.
"Taxpayers pay Bob Bennett $174,000 a year to do a job: represent Utahns in the Senate," said Chris Chocola, president of the club. "He's supposed to be Washington fighting to save our economy, not in Utah fighting to save his career."
Chocola added in a nastier note, "Some fiscal conservatives may be happy Bennett isn't back in Washington voting for earmarks and bailouts, but he has a sworn duty to do the job he was elected to do, whether it's convenient for him or not."
Club spokesman Mike Connolly said that besides issuing a press release attacking Bennett for absenteeism, the club will have booths at the GOP convention on Saturday and will spread information there about the missed votes there to attack him.
The Club for Growth has spent nearly $200,000 against Bennett this year. It especially dislikes a health care reform bill Bennett pushed earlier. Bennett has said the club's attacks are deceptive, and amount to attempted manipulation of Utah voters by an outside group.
Among the votes that Bennett missed this year: one to declare a moratorium on budget earmarks; a point of order against a spending bill that would exceed expenditures allowed by the Budget Act; votes to set spending caps; and a motion to take up the Health Care Reconciliation bill.
Bennett has been trailing in polls of state GOP convention delegates against attorney Mike Lee, and in some polls also to entrepreneur Tim Bridgewater. Also, a recent Deseret News poll showed that 41 percent of GOP delegates said they would not vote for Bennett under any circumstances.
That could spell elimination for Bennett at Saturday's GOP convention and its three rounds of voting. In the first round, all but three candidates will be eliminated. Another candidate will be eliminated in the second round. The top two face off in the final round.
If a candidate receives 60 percent of the vote in any round, he or she becomes the GOP nominee. Otherwise, the final two will face each other in a primary election. If 41 percent truly will not vote for Bennett, as polls predict, that means if he makes it to the final round his opponent would win more than 60 percent and become the nominee.