WASHINGTON — Utah Sen. Bob Bennett officially withdrew from political contention Thursday, announcing he will not pursue a write-in campaign challenge to the winner of this summer's GOP primary.
Mike Lee and Tim Bridgewater bested Bennett at the Republican state convention runoff earlier this month, earning the top vote counts from the 3,500 statewide delegates in attendance. They'll face each other June 22 in a closed primary battle to get to the November ballot.
Bennett, however, is out of the game.
"I have informed my staff, Sen. (Mitch) McConnell (R-Ky.) and other senators this morning that I will not run a write-in campaign for the Senate race in Utah," Bennett said. "It's been an interesting decision to make because of the outpouring of support and urging that I do run a write-in campaign."
Bennett made his announcement at the offices of the National Republican Senatorial Committee — a group that has already pledged to support the victorious primary candidate.
Bennett said, in spite of widespread support to run, he thought remaining in the race would only have only led to further divisiveness within his party.
"I have realized this has been the nastiest race that we have had for a party nomination in the history of the state of Utah for a statewide office," Bennett said. "And people who have worked together in the party and previous elections have been split by the emotions that have been engendered by it."
Bennett also called out political groups from outside Utah for their activism before the state convention that he said "fueled the fire and made the atmosphere truly toxic."
Bennett did not issue an endorsement for either of the primary candidates but seemed to leave the door open for that possibility.
After the announcement Thursday, both of those candidates issued statements thanking Bennett for his 18 years of service to the state. Bridgewater made note of Bennett's "respect for the political process," and Lee said "many of his accomplishments made Utah a better state."
Now that Bennett is officially out, Lee and Bridgewater are ready to leave the pre-convention criticism of his performance behind, and both candidates would likely benefit greatly from a Bennett endorsement. A recent Deseret News/KSL TV poll indicated Bennett still enjoys significant support among Republican Utah voters.
The 2010 senatorial candidate from the other side of the aisle, Salt Lake businessman Sam Granato, would gladly accept a Bennett endorsement, according to his campaign manager, Marla Kennedy.
Kennedy said Thursday that they were "happy that Sen. Bennett chose not to endorse anyone at this time" and that Granato would be the best recipient of Bennett's backing.
"I think Sen. Bennett's endorsement has considerable weight," Kennedy said. "And I don't think it's unreasonable to think he would endorse Sam."
Kennedy said Granato's position as a moderate Democrat puts him closer to Bennett, politically, than either Lee or Bridgewater — candidates she said have platforms that are too far right to "resonate with most Utahns."
Utah GOP Chairman Dave Hansen said, however, that the possibility of Bennett putting his support behind Granato was nonexistent.
"Sen. Bennett is not going to endorse Sam Granato," Hansen said.
Hansen said he was not surprised by Bennett's announcement Thursday and that the senator's endorsement, should it go to either Lee or Bridgewater, would be a political "shot in the arm" for either of the candidates.
This story was reported from Salt Lake City.
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company