Politicians like to say it's never too early to start thinking about your next election, and Sen. Bob Bennett is certainly planning his 2010 campaign.
Bennett, R-Utah, who will seek a fourth, six-year term in 23 months, says he fully expects to be challenged within the Utah Republican Party.
"I take nothing for granted," he said. And he will win re-election, he believes, through a combination of good organizational work, a healthy campaign war chest, the power of the incumbency and making his case to Utah voters.
"I'm fundraising. We're going to open our campaign headquarters early. We're going to have our strongest grass-roots organization. We're sending a message to anyone who challenges me (in either party): 'You are not going to catch the Bob Bennett forces napping,'" he said.
A student of Utah and national politics, he saw his first U.S. Senate campaign upclose and personal as a 17-year-old in 1950 when his late father, Wallace F. Bennett, won a U.S. Senate seat from Utah, Bennett said. "Utahns like one thing more than Republicans an incumbent. All the incumbents won in the general election this year and that is usually the case."
High-profile, statewide officeholders are especially immune to voter rejection. No Utah governor has lost a general re-election since WWII. And no U.S. senator has lost re-election since Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, beat Sen. Frank Moss, D-Utah, in 1976, notes Bennett.
Hatch has been challenged in recent conventions, barely escaping a GOP primary in 2000. Even popular GOP Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. was challenged by another Republican this year, "and Huntsman has an 85 percent approval rating," said Bennett, who is 75 years old, would be 77 at his re-election and 83 at the end of his next term if elected.
Some conservative Utah GOP delegates have been grumpy in recent years, not necessarily liking their own party incumbents.
Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, facing two tough challengers, barely got out of the 2008 GOP convention. And voters in the closed GOP primary in June dumped Cannon from his 3rd District seat, picking Jason Chaffetz, who went on to win the seat last month.
Bennett said that even though Democrats made gains in Salt Lake County this election (knocking off Utah House Speaker Greg Curtis, R-Sandy, and Sen. Carlene Walker, R-Cottonwood Heights, and taking control of the Salt Lake County Council), Bennett doesn't see a weakened state GOP.
"The incumbents from both parties did well, as incumbents historically do in Utah," said Bennett. "That includes the Democrats, (U.S. Rep. Jim) Matheson and (Salt Lake County Mayor Peter) Corroon."
Utah is still a GOP stronghold, although she has fewer fellow states in that dwindling group. The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that after the 2008 elections, there are only 14 states where Republicans control both houses of their legislatures, while Democrats control 27 statehouses. And there are only eight states that have GOP-controlled legislatures and hold the governorships, Utah being one. Democrats hold total control in 17 states, the rest have some kind of split control.
Bennett declined to say if current GOP state chairman Stan Lockhart or Salt Lake County GOP chairman James Evans should step down. (Evans is term-limited out, under county party rules, but Lockhart could run again. Neither Lockhart nor Evans returned calls for comment Friday afternoon on their political futures.)
"It is too early" to take sides in such intraparty contests, Bennett said. Next spring, when some party office candidates begin to come forward, Bennett said he would get behind the state chairman candidate that he believes "will help me the most" in his re-election bid.
Historically, the incumbent GOP officeholder who heads the ticket in the next election "has some weight" in deciding who the new party chairman (picked one year ahead of that election) will be, Bennett noted.
In 2010, that will be Bennett. There is no gubernatorial race that year.State party delegates will pick a chairman and other party officers during their 2009 convention, held next summer.