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Utah Sen. Bob Bennett is conservative, but is he conservative enough to survive the GOP primary?

May 7, 2010 |  5:16 pm

Bob Bennett makes his pitch

Much has been said and written, including here on the Ticket, about what a lousy political year it looks to be for Democrats. As of today, the party’s House majority seems to be hanging by a proverbial thread. Analysts say the Democrats are likely to keep control of the Senate, but a loss of half dozen or more seats in November would be no surprise.

So it’s no small paradox that the first incumbent casualty of this tetchy election season may be a Republican, Utah Sen. Bob Bennett. (See an earlier Ticket item on this here.)

Party activists will meet here in Salt Lake City on Saturday to pick their Senate nominee under a caucus system that is perfectly designed for the angry, unhappy, anti-establishment masses that today constitute the mobilized Republican grass roots.

As Bennett noted, rather poignantly it seemed, in a USA Today interview, “If I can get to the voters, I should be fine.” He may never get the chance.

Under Utah’s system, the nomination will be decided by about 3,500 delegates gathered at the downtown Salt Palace. There will be three rounds of balloting to cull the field, which consists of Bennett and seven challengers. If anyone receives 60% support, that person will become the party nominee.

The front-runner is Mike Lee, an attorney, former counsel to Utah’s ex-governor, Jon Huntsman, and former clerk for Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito. If no one meets the 60% threshold,...

... the two top finishers will advance to a June 22 runoff to be decided by Republicans statewide.

Right now, Utah political insiders say Bennett may not survive the first round and will be lucky to even make the runoff. He is, by just about any measure, a through-and-through conservative, with an A rating from the National Rifle Assn. and stellar marks from, among other s, the American Conservative Union.

But  Bennett, who was never much of a campaigner and gets low marks for constituent service, always inspired more respect than affection among Utah Republicans. He upset many by going back on a promise to serve just two Senate terms. (If reelected, he would match his father, Wallace, who held the seat for four terms.)

What really antagonized activists, however, was his role in pushing through the 2008 Wall Street rescue package and his collaboration with a Democrat, Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, on a version of healthcare legislation that would have required Americans to buy insurance--just like (mon dieu!) President Obama’s plan.

Bennett has played the clout card, citing all the good he has done for Utah over the years and all the state stands to lose without having him back in Washington. (Given the state’s registration and staunchly conservative cast, whoever wins the GOP nominations appears to be a shoo-in come November.)

But delegates like Argie Shumway aren’t buying it. “We want a principled senator in there even if they’re a freshman senator,” said Shumway. She’s supporting Lee.

--Mark Z. Barabak

Photo: Sen. Bob Bennett, right, speaks to state GOP delegate Uriel Tuck, following a candidates forum in April at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. Credit: Associated Press.