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.”
His criticism of Bennett’s health-care record goes beyond Medicare Part D. Lee also slams the health-care proposal that Bennett co-sponsored in the Senate with Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden. The Healthy Americans Act (HAA), first unveiled in 2007, aims to achieve universal insurance coverage through a mix of regulations, subsidies, tax deductions, and new state health agencies. Much like Obamacare, its linchpin is a nationwide individual insurance mandate, which Lee blasts as unconstitutional.
The Club for Growth, which spent roughly $120,000 on its anti-Bennett drive prior to the March 23 caucuses, has been railing against the HAA. “It’s a terrible, terrible bill,” argues Club spokesman Mike Connolly, who also raps Bennett for being “an unrepentant earmarker” and an unrepentant supporter of TARP. “Senator Bennett is just really out of touch with the Republicans in Utah,” Connolly says. “He’s just not an economic conservative.”
Citing TARP and Medicare Part D as proof of Bennett’s insufficient commitment to conservative values is somewhat unfair. Yes, he voted for TARP — but so did Rep. Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) and Sen. Tom Coburn (R., Okla.), two conservative stalwarts. NR endorsed TARP, as did Steve Forbes, Larry Kudlow, and the Wall Street Journal editorial page. If favoring the initial bank-rescue package was tantamount to sacrilege, then both the conservative movement and Republican officialdom are littered with heretics. Bennett robustly defends his TARP vote, stressing the urgency of preventing a full-blown financial collapse, and the Salt Lake Tribune notes that he “objected when TARP money was used to bail out the automotive industry, because he said it went beyond the program’s legislative intent.”
As for the 2003 prescription-drug bill, which also launched Health Savings Accounts and Medicare Advantage, it passed with the backing of 42 out of 51 GOP senators and 204 out of 229 Republican House members — in other words, 82 percent of the Republican Senate caucus and 89 percent of the GOP House caucus. Many prominent conservatives gave their approval, including Ryan, Sen. Jon Kyl (R., Ariz.), and Sen. John Cornyn (R., Texas). Ryan, Kyl, and Cornyn also supported No Child Left Behind.
The mild-mannered Bennett, a Mormon and former Army National Guard chaplain, decries the “slash-and-burn negative campaigning” that has characterized the 2010 primary. He says the Club for Growth ads bashing his health-care plan contain “outrageous distortions” and draw misleading comparisons to Obamacare. For example, Bennett denies that his bill would allow federal funding of abortion. He also emphasizes that “I’m not wedded to the individual mandate.” Indeed, Bennett is glad that various state attorneys general are testing the constitutionality of the mandate. Whatever the similarities between the HAA and Obamacare, Bennett has signed the Club for Growth pledge to repeal the latter.
The Club has also ripped Bennett for his stance on earmarks. In February 2002, Citizens Against Government Waste designated the Utah Republican “Porker of the Month.” Bennett’s campaign website states that he “believes earmarks should be transparent, but he makes no apologies for using the constitutional authority appropriately.”
From the perspective of Utah conservatives, Bennett has other liabilities. During the Bush years, he backed comprehensive immigration reform, which was deeply unpopular among his Republican constituents. Lee also knocks Bennett for voting several times to raise the federal debt ceiling.
Utah may well be the reddest state in America, and whoever captures the Republican nomination is virtually guaranteed to win the general election. Whereas Utah’s other GOP senator, Orrin Hatch, boasts a deep and loyal following in his home state, Bennett’s base of support has always been somewhat shallow. First elected in 1992, he originally vowed to serve only two terms; but during his 1998 campaign, he publicly abandoned that promise. Now, after 18 years in the Senate, Bennett is fighting for his political life. “I think there’s a real possibility he could lose on May 8,” says a Utah Republican official who requested anonymity.
Bennett’s travails largely reflect the populist, anti-Washington fury that is percolating across the country. The Utah GOP official observes that many Republican caucus voters were “first-timers” motivated by the tea-party movement and/or Glenn Beck’s 9.12 Project. The caucuses took place just days after the House of Representatives passed Obamacare, a vote that “enraged a lot of people out here.”
So how does Bennett gauge his chances? “Our internal polling shows that no one is yet near 60 percent,” he says. The outcome will depend heavily on the second-choice candidates of Republican delegates. Unfortunately for Bennett, the Utah GOP official says that relatively few delegates would currently name the incumbent as their second choice. “That’s the big danger to him right now.”
– Duncan Currie is deputy managing editor of National Review Online.