Bennett Agonistes
In Utah, a three-term GOP senator is fighting for his political life.


Some of his fiercest critics are tea-party activists. He is being grilled over his support for bank bailouts and health-care legislation. The free-market Club for Growth is urging his defeat. A prominent right-wing blogger has denounced him for casting “scores and scores of bad votes throughout his tenure in Congress.”

And he’s a Utah Republican whose lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union is nearly 84 percent.

Endorsed by Dick Cheney, Newt Gingrich, and Mitt Romney, Sen. Bob Bennett may seem an unlikely target of Republican anger in the Age of Obama. Yet his perceived deviations from small-government orthodoxy have earned him a bevy of GOP challengers as he seeks a fourth term in office. “I have to work harder in this campaign than I’ve ever worked before,” Bennett says.

He is now running the gauntlet of Utah’s quirky primary system. On March 23, the state held neighborhood caucuses, in which voters picked delegates to attend the May 8 GOP convention in Salt Lake City. There was a surge of grassroots participation: According to the Deseret News, no more than 25 percent (and perhaps only 20 percent) of the 2008 Republican state delegates were reelected in 2010. The convention uses three rounds of voting to shrink the GOP field, with the third ballot (if necessary) pitting the top two candidates against each other. If a candidate garners 60 percent of the vote on any of the three ballots, he automatically becomes the Republican Senate nominee; if not, the two finalists square off in a statewide primary race, culminating in June.

In an April 10 straw poll of delegates to the Weber County GOP convention, the 76-year-old Bennett placed third with 106 votes, behind Cherilyn Eagar (129 votes) and Mike Lee (150 votes). While the delegates surveyed were county delegates, not state delegates, the result was still significant. It was the sixth straw-poll win for Lee, who has emerged as the frontrunner among Bennett’s seven primary rivals.

“Senator Bennett’s a good man,” says the 38-year-old attorney, but Utahns are “ready for a new generation of leaders.” Lee, who previously served as general counsel to former Utah governor Jon Huntsman and clerked for Supreme Court justice Samuel Alito, describes his agenda as a restoration of constitutional principles. He is sharply critical not just of President Obama, but also of President Bush. Lee disparagingly refers to the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), the Medicare Modernization Act (which introduced a new prescription-drug entitlement, known as Medicare Part D), and the No Child Left Behind Act as “the Bush-era trifecta.” He zings Bennett for favoring the first two, while crediting him for opposing the last one. “No Child Left Behind openly flouted the idea of state sovereignty,” Lee complains, and TARP “was arguably the largest redistribution of wealth, up to that point, ever encapsulated in one piece of legislation.”