Utah GOP delegates dump Sen. Bob Bennett at state convention; Bridgewater, Lee to battle in primary

Published: Sunday, May 9 2010 12:00 a.m. MDT

National and local media attend the GOP State Convention at the Salt Palace in Salt Lake City on Saturday. The possibility that incumbent Sen. Bob Bennett would be bumped as a candidate drew media attention. Bennett did lose in the second vote.

August Miller, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — State Republican delegates dumped U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett on Saturday, and delegates vented their anti-incumbent fervor with a long sustained cheer as his defeat was announced.

Pouring even more salt into the wound was that Bennett did not even make it into the final round of voting.

Bennett was rejected in a second round, receiving only 26.59 percent of delegate votes. The two survivors of that round were entrepreneur Tim Bridgewater and Mike Lee, who finished first and second, respectively.

Bridgewater just missed obtaining 60 percent of delegate votes in a third and final round of voting, which would have given him the nomination. Bridgewater had 57.3 percent of the vote, and Lee had 42.7 percent, so they will face each other in a June 22 primary.

"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 atmosphere," Bennett said. "But I wouldn't have cast any of them any differently, because I have always done the best I can to cast the votes that I think are best for the state and best for the country."

His seven opponents had claimed he was not conservative enough for Utah, and had attacked him for voting for a banking bailout and for pushing a bipartisan health care reform proposal.

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.

Bridgewater has already lost two GOP primaries, in the 2nd Congressional District in the early 2000s.

How will this one be different?

"I will work harder. The reason I won today is that I outworked all the other candidates, meeting the delegates all over this state. Same thing, meet with as many Republican voters as we can. We'll raise money like crazy. We'll do some radio."

Lee was glad to get into a primary.

"We'll continue the campaign as it has been, only bigger. We'll stay on message — returning constitutional government to the United States, and reign in big government. We'll do mass media. We'll do radio and TV."

Both men said Bennett was swept up in a national tide on anti-incumbency, a huge debt and Washington, D.C. overspending.

"People just wanted a change," Lee said.

Bennett's ouster was the first time in 70 years that a Utah party has dumped an incumbent, and apparently ends his Senate service where he was a senior member of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee and was in Senate leadership as counsel to the Republican majority leader.

In the first round of voting — where five of the eight GOP Senate candidates were eliminated — Bennett had finished third behind Lee and Bridgewater.

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