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Sen. Bob Bennett says Utah's freshman senator likely won't go to the head of the class

Published: Thursday, Sept. 3 2015 7:02 a.m. MDT

WASHINGTON — Don't expect much from whoever ends up being elected as Utah's newest U.S. senator, at least for the freshman's first few years in office.

That's the advice of Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, who lost his bid for a fourth term last month to Tim Bridgewater and Mike Lee at the GOP state convention.

"Your ability to influence anything is pretty much zero," Bennett, 76, said of a newcomer to the Senate, especially one from a small state and, likely, the minority party.

Tuesday, Utah Republicans will choose between Bridgewater and Lee in their party's primary. In November, the winner will face Democrat Sam Granato, who has his work cut out for him in the largely Republican state.

Even with the company of at least a dozen new colleagues swept into power by a wave of anti-incumbent sentiment, Utah's freshman senator can expect a tough time.

"Almost any freshman spends the first two years in the Senate learning their way around, the procedures, how things work," said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "It is hard."

With a larger-than-normal freshman class expected, and control likely to stay in the hands of Democrats, Duffy said, it's going to be even more difficult for Utah's new senator.

"The more new faces, the more competition for committee assignments," she said. "The class we're going to see come in is going to be a very partisan class."

Bennett recalled running up against the Senate's seniority-based structure after being elected in 1992 to replace retiring Sen. Jake Garn. The "big promises on big issues" he made during his campaign turned out to be difficult for a freshman to fill.

"You learn very quickly there are a lot of people on the big issues who have their own ideas and they're not about to step aside for you," Bennett said. So he looked for less-popular issues to champion, such as the so-called "Y2K" preparations to ensure the turn of the millennium wouldn't crash the nation's computers.

"I figured, OK, the big boys are all focused on these other big issues and this could turn into a major disaster," he said. "I created the impression among my colleagues that Bennett is a player."

That took time, though.

"It's not just seniority in terms of number of years," he said. "I'm talking about seniority in terms of confidence and trust and respect. No matter who you are and how bright you are, it takes a while to build that up."

Bennett said it also takes time to get good committee assignments, where much of the Senate's work is done. Utah can expect to lose Bennett's seat on the powerful appropriations committee, he said, although he believes the new senator might be able to take his place on the banking and the energy and natural resources committees.

But freshmen members of committees are often seen and not heard, he said, allowed to speak and ask questions according to their seniority ranking among the 100 senators. And Utah's newest senator may well be No. 100, given that holding other elected offices and a state's size are factored into the ranking.

Bennett, who ranked 32nd in seniority according to Roll Call, said a freshman senator also won't have the sway to continue his efforts, for example, to stall the loss of space-industry jobs in Utah and stop the designation of millions of acres of wilderness in the state.

Still, Bennett acknowledged delegates to the GOP state convention in May didn't want his experience. "That's what the campaign was about," he said. "People looked me in the eye and said, 'We don't care.' "

While Bridgewater, Lee and other Senate candidates nationwide are promising so-called tea party supporters that they'll change the way Washington works, it's not clear how much they can do.

Bennett, who recently endorsed Bridgewater, said some of the issues both Utah Republicans still in the race have campaigned on, such as replacing the federal income tax with a national sales tax, just aren't going to happen. "The impact on Utah will not come from what they can do. It will come from what they won't be able to do," said the state's junior senator.

That's because in a system that clearly favors incumbents, there is a lot of resistance to change.

"There are certain ways things get done," said University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank. "While senators can be unhappy with that process and want to change it, the reality is it's beyond one or two or three senators."

Burbank said there are plenty of people in Washington, D.C., who are "perfectly happy with the way things work."

Kelly Patterson, director of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University, said the Senate's longer terms — six years, as opposed to two years in the U.S. House of Representatives — help "nullify public opinion."

He said it would take multiple election cycles to make any real difference in how the Senate operates. In the meantime, Patterson said, taking ideological stands "may not be the best strategy for Utah's future growth."

This story was reported from Salt Lake City.

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