To hear the news tell it, incumbent Republican senator Robert Bennett has been ridden out of town on a rail:
Politico: “The first incumbent of the 2010 election year crashed and burned Saturday, and there’s ample cause for alarm for officeholders everywhere.”
The Boston Globe: “Utah GOP convention ousts senator.”
AP: “US Sen. Bob Bennett ousted at Utah GOP convention.”
The Baltimore Examiner: “Utah conventions kick Bennett out, scare Jim Matheson.”
The wording in these headlines suggests he was just removed from office. Not so. He’s been rejected as the Republican nominee in this year’s Utah Senate race. He could, theoretically, run a write-in campaign, although that sounds unlikely: “Bennett could conceivably run a write-in campaign, but he cannot run as an independent since the deadline has passed for him to get his name on the ballot. He said he would support whomever the party nominates.” That will be either businesman Tim Bridgewater or attorney Mike Lee.
Is this a big deal? Yes and no. Bennett is indeed the first incumbent Utah senator to lose his party’s nomination since 1940. And yes, he has a more conservative record than other Republicans who have faced insurgencies, like Arlen Specter and Charlie Crist. But he’s 76 years old, has been in the Senate since 1993. Utah Republicans felt it was time for a change, over his TARP vote and certain other fiscal and social issues, and he failed to persuade his Republican constituents that he could represent their interests better than the other options. (After a while, voters get tired of hearing about the importance of seniority in the Senate.)
But usually when a group of new faces take on a longtime incumbent, the longtime incumbent can hold onto the largest slice of the electorate in a divided primary. Utah’s unusual nominating process exacerbated the problems for Bennett. If Utah had the primary system found in most other states, instead of a convention among 3,400 of the most passionate and fired-up registered Republicans, the results might have looked different. (At least one poll suggested Bennett would narrowly win under a traditional primary system.)