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.
Polls had shown that a plurality of Utah voters had backed Bennett, even if more conservative state delegates did not. If Bennett had managed to change the vote of just 160 delegates at the convention (out of nearly 3,500), he likely would have survived into a primary and may have been re-elected.
After Bennett's ouster, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said he supports the current convention-primary system. But he added "I feel badly" for the GOP voters who now don't get a chance to vote on Bennett.
"But that is the way it is. The process has its pluses and it's minuses. I prefer to dwell on the pluses," Hatch said. "He held some very important positions" in the Senate, "some that no one from Utah has ever held before. But at least we are lucky to have two very good men (Lee and Bridgewater) to chose from now."
Bennett was ousted even though Mitt Romney, the popular former presidential candidate and chief of the 2002 Olympics, pleaded with candidates to support him.
"We need Bob Bennett's skill and intellect and power," Romney said. He called Bennett a man who "America and Utah cannot afford to lose." But Romney and Bennett were met with some boos from the floor.
Bennett himself told delegates they should keep him and his seniority to help protect Utah. He said a vote for him would show that "Utahns are not taken in by special interest groups that tried to take over this campaign," and that they "reject the doomsayers and fear mongers who say this country will fail."
Meanwhile, Lee gave a fiery speech to delegates that attracted many of the loudest cheers.
"Our federal government is too big because the Constitution has been ignored by Congress for too long," he said waving copy of the Constitution.
He added, "We are ready to get government's greedy hand out of our pockets and off of 70 percent of our land" to cheers.
He also said that America's power is not in elected officials or special interests, but "the power of America is in the hands of its people." In the final round, after Bennett was eliminated, Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., maybe the nation's most conservative senator, endorse Lee by video and urged delegates to support him.
Meanwhile, Bridgewater told delegates, "Count on me to say no to amnesty (for illegal aliens), no to cap and trade, and no to further funding of the United Nations."
He pledged to use his experience as an entrepreneur and a lover of the Constitution to move the country forward. "I will take a constitutionalist who is also a capitalist," he said. He also said it is not a job for entrenched politicians (like Bennett) or politician lawyers (like Lee).
Bennett's defeat also came amid controversy over a religious-based attack in a last-minute mailer sent to delegates.
That mailer to delegates (sent by a heretofore unknown group called Utah Defenders of Constitutional Integrity) showed a picture of Lee over the LDS Temple and Bennett over a picture of the U.S. Capitol. It then says "Which candidate really has Utah values?"
On the back is a common LDS phrase questioning whether the U.S. Constitution hangs by a thread. It asks delegates to thank Bennett and then vote for anyone other than the incumbent.
Lee denies his campaign sent it.
"It is very offensive. It makes me look like a jerk, which is what it is supposed to do," Lee said. "It hurts (Bennett), too. I don't know who sent it. It is the same picture that went out with a letter that said I got $150,000 in illegal campaign contributions, also not true."
Bennett, who happens to be a former LDS bishop and is a grandson of former LDS President Heber J. Grant, said that he knows it comes from out of state. "They misspelled Utahns on the back page. It has a post mark from Cleveland. I think (the flier) helped me today. This is just more out-of-state people trying to tell Utahns how to vote."
Bennett's ouster continues an interesting historical trend — few Utah senators ever leave by choice, and most are eventually rejected by voters instead. In fact, only two senators in the state's history ever retired by choice: former Sen. Jake Garn, R-Utah, and Bennett's father, former Sen. Wallace Bennett, R-Utah.
However, the dumping usually occurs in a general election against a candidate from the opposing party. The last time that a party itself rejected an incumbent Utah senator was 1940, when four-term incumbent Sen. William H. King, D-Utah, was beaten in a primary by his eventual successor Sen. Abe Murdock, D-Utah.
Utah also has a long history of dumping aging senators, even if they have plenty of seniority and powerful positions. Bennett was attempting to become the oldest senator ever elected in the state. (He would be 77 by November's final election.)
One example is that King was the 79-year-old Senate President Pro Tempore (senior member of the majority party) when he was defeated by 54-year-old Murdock.
Another example is that former Sen. Reed Smoot, R-Utah, was defeated at age 72 (in 1932) despite being chairman of the powerful Finance Committee and being "dean" of the Senate (its longest-serving member) after 30 years of service. Smoot was even an apostle in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Also, former Sen. Elbert D. Thomas, D-Utah, was defeated in 1950 after three terms by Wallace Bennett, who, in part, attacked Thomas' age — which was then "only" 67.
In other action, Gov. Gary Herbert won the GOP nomination with 71 percent of delegate votes against three opponents. Rep. Rob Bishop won 93 percent of delegate votes and was nominated. Rep. Jason Chaffetz faced no opposition.
In a surprisingly close contest in the 2nd Congressional District, former state representative Morgan Philpot won the GOP nomination with 61.3 percent of the delegate vote. Neil Walter barely missed getting into a primary, with 39.87 percent. Philpot will now face the winner of the Democratic primary between Rep. Jim Matheson and Claudia Wright.
Bennett wasn't the only incumbent with problems on Saturday. State Rep. Ben Ferry, R-Corinne, was kicked out of office by Lee B. Perry; Rep. Mel Brown, R-Kamas, was forced into a primary by Jon Hellander (Brown finished second), as was Rep. Becky Edwards, R-Bountiful, with D.J. Schanz.
The other legislative incumbents on the ballot Saturday won re-nomination with more than 60 percent of the vote. In open seats, David Butterfield won the GOP nomination in House District 4, Rick Raile in House District 25, and Daniel Thatcher in Senate District 12.
Contributing: Josh Smith