Sen. Bob Bennett (R., Utah) is getting heated with the Club for Growth, a conservative political action committee, for helping to kick him out of his state’s GOP Senate primary. Bennett tells National Review Online that the CFG is “no longer interested in political ideology. It is only interested in power.”
“The Club for Growth saw an opportunity in Utah to demonstrate their power,” Bennett says. “They wanted to send a message to the rest of the Republican establishment that they’re a group that needs to be reckoned with. They paid no attention to my record, or deliberately destroyed it, or both. They knew that if they could knock off an incumbent, there would be no penalty in November, since Utah would elect a Republican to the Senate. The Club doesn’t care about who represents Utah, or what he believes. All it cares about is getting credit for flexing their power in the primary.”
Politico details the CFG’s efforts:
The conservative group, which nearly ended Sen. Arlen Specter’s career with a primary challenge in 2004 and helped bankroll victorious GOP challengers to Michigan Rep. Joe Schwarz in 2006 and Maryland Rep. Wayne Gilchrest in 2008, attacked Bennett in television ads and ran an operation to promote anti-Bennett delegates at local nominating caucuses.
In total, the group spent $177,750 on the primary, largely on phone calls to delegates, online strategy, mailings and robo-calls in an effort to put as many anti-Bennett delegates in the room last weekend as possible. The linchpin of the Club’s effort was a push to turn out sympathetic participants to 2,000 caucuses that were held March 23 at which Republicans chose the delegates who ultimately rejected Bennett.
The Club also spent $25,500 on television ads highlighting Bennett’s support for the federal bank bailout and tying him to the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere” earmark and “big government health care.”
Beyond the CFG, Bennett does not blame the tea-party movement for his loss at the state Republican convention. “Obviously, they played a role, how big, you never can tell,” he says. “While there was a great deal of tea-party activity, it is never accurate to attribute a win or loss to any one, single factor. Politics is much too complicated for that.” In many ways, he says, he shares the tea partiers’ conservative values.
Bennett says don’t even think of comparing him to Gov. Charlie Crist (R., Fla.), who recently left a GOP Senate primary thanks to a challenge from the right. “There is no legitimate comparison there,” he says. “I’m as conservative as they come. It was never a question of conservatism.”
Bennett concedes that Utah Republicans may simply have wanted something new. “There was a lot of demand for fresh blood, there’s no question about that,” he says. “I made an absolutely compelling case for experience and the ability to get things done rather than learn the ropes.”
“The anger out there is against Washington and the federal government,” Bennett says, “as if the federal government was some monolithic, single institution. And I’m in Washington, so with many of [the voters], I’m seen as part of the federal government, the government they want to throw out and punish. They tell me the only way they can punish the federal government is by voting against you – nothing against you, nothing personal, you understand. Voting me out, they say, is the only way we can send the message to Washington that we hate them.” The Obamacare debate, he says, generated most of “the hatred . . . it became a lightning rod.”
What will he miss once he leaves the upper chamber? “Personal contacts, of course,” he says. “The friends you make, the alliances you form, and the opportunity to work on major national issues with truly extraordinary people. That’s special, and the Senate is full of extraordinary people in both parties. We’ve got a few clunkers, who I will not identify, but someone who has survived a statewide race is, by and large, someone has something going for him or her. I’ll cherish those friendships.”
Reaction to his stunning loss in the Senate cloakroom has been like “going to your own funeral,” Bennett muses. “You hear everybody say all the wonderful things you’ve done in your life, but you’re not dead. There has been a great outpouring of support and some anger – people asking what’s wrong with people of Utah. Others have made expressions of deep, personal affection, which has been tremendously gratifying, and such gestures have been pretty much without regard to party.”
To Sen. Orrin Hatch (R., Utah), his longtime friend, Bennett says not to worry about 2012, yet. “It’s entirely too early,” he explains. “The political landscape can change so rapidly.” For now, Bennett is deciding whether to run as a write-in candidate or retire. “I’m going to let the dust settle and I’ll know when the right time to make an announcement comes.”