Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search

Is the 'tea party' in Utah set to oust a Republican senator?

Many in the tea party movement in Utah aren't happy with Republican Sen. Robert Bennett, saying he's too moderate. They plan to vote their displeasure at the state GOP convention Saturday.

By Michael B. Farrell/ Staff Writer / May 7, 2010

David Kirkham, driving outside Provo, is a cofounder of Utah’s ‘tea party’ movement. With a fractured conservative base, incumbent Sen. Robert Bennett faces a serious challenge to his seat.

Tony Avelar/The Christian Science Monitor


Provo, Utah

It will take something of a political coup to oust three-term Utah Republican Sen. Robert Bennett, but that's exactly what his opponents have been busily orchestrating.

Skip to next paragraph

These aren't Democrats plotting against Senator Bennett, one of the country's most conservative lawmakers. These are Republicans – more precisely, "tea party" Republicans, who say Bennett just isn't conservative enough.

Their plan to keep him from returning to Washington may work. In two recent surveys of Republican delegates, who vote at a May 8 convention on whom they want the Senate nominee to be, Bennett trailed far behind Mike Lee, an attorney who once clerked for Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito and who has become a favorite among many tea partyers.

"There is more anger toward Washington, more anti-incumbent feeling than I have seen in years," says LaVarr Webb, a veteran political consultant and former journalist in Utah. "That, of course, is all bad news for Bob Bennett."

While tea partyers are perhaps best known for directing their discontent over taxes, deficit spending, bailouts, and health-care reform at President Obama and his Democratic allies, incumbent Republicans – sometimes seen as too moderate, or as part of the Washington machine – are also in their sights.

Riding a new wave of antiestablishment sentiment, spread via Twitter and Facebook and fueled by conservative talk radio, candidates who speak the language of the tea partyers are mounting serious primary challenges to mainstream Republicans in Florida, Kentucky, and Indiana.

The outcome of these votes will define the clout, or lack thereof, of the fledgling tea party movement, says Jennifer Duffy, senior editor for the Cook Political Report. "They will get a lot of mileage if they manage to deny the nomination to Bennett, who, the last time I checked, is no raving moderate."

Though Bennett has well-established conservative credentials (he supports gun rights and favors tighter immigration controls), many tea partyers, as well as the antitax group the Club for Growth that is campaigning against Bennett, cite his 2008 vote in favor of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) bank bailout as the thing that put him on the wrong side of their movement.

"The common thread through all of this is fiscal responsibility," says David Kirkham, who organized Utah's first tea party protest on March 6, 2009. "I want to turn back to constitutional principles."

Since that first rally that drew about 100 people to the state capitol building in Salt Lake City, Mr. Kirkham has helped organize more than a dozen other protests. The most recent one, on April 15, drew about 1,300 people.

While Utah may not be the epicenter for the grass-roots tea party movement (Utah is, after all, already one of the more conservative states), it may be the place where its political impact is most immediately realized. And that's largely due to the state's unique political system.