'Tea party' clout: What was learned from Sen. Robert Bennett loss

The 'tea party' can claim a major victory with the ouster of Utah's three-term incumbent Sen. Robert Bennett. But Utah's primary rules are odd, meaning the truer test may come May 18 in Kentucky.

By , Staff writer

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    Sen. Robert Bennett of Utah left the stage of the Utah Republican Convention Saturday after making it through the first round of voting. He was eliminated in the next round, which has been seen as sign of 'tea party' power.
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The circumstances of ouster of three-term Sen. Robert Bennett in a Utah Republican convention Saturday suggest that any claims of a "tea party" revolution in the works for the 2010 midterm elections are, perhaps, still premature.

To be sure, the elimination of incumbent Senator Bennett in the race for the Republican nomination is the most concrete political accomplishment yet of the tea party movement, which opposed him. Moreover, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist's flight from the Republican Party – when faced with a near-certain primary defeat at the hands of the tea-party-backed Marco Rubio – shows that Republicans ignore the tea party at their peril.

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But Utah, in particular, is a peculiar political proving ground. Primaries are decided, not by voters registered with each party, but by a convention of delegates. The 3,400 delegates who convened in Salt Lake City this weekend represented the purest of the pure, ideologically speaking – the leading conservatives of arguably the Union's most conservative state.

In other words, they are the Utahns most likely to be swayed by the tea party's call for strict fiscal conservatism and smaller government.

Bennett's missteps

It was Bennett's support for the federal Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP) and his attempt to work out a bipartisan compromise on health-care reform that doomed him in such an assembly. By contrast, second-place finisher Mike Lee, who will face off with the winner in a June 22 primary, has pledged to dismantle the Department of Education.

[Editor's note: The original misstated the results of the convention.]

For these reasons, the lessons of Utah are not easily applied in other states. Indeed, a local poll by Dan Jones & Associates suggested that if all Utah's registered Republicans are taken into account – as is the case in most state primaries – Bennett comes in first with 27 percent support.

The truer test will come May 18, when Kentucky Republicans will choose their candidate for an open Senate seat. The race is between Trey Grayson, a candidate backed by the full might of the Washington establishment, and Rand Paul, who is backed by Sarah Palin, the tea parties, and is the son of Ron Paul, the former presidential candidate and darling of many of America's most conservative voters.

The clearest way for the tea party movement to have an effect on national politics would be to push their favored candidates through Republican primaries in Republican-leaning states and congressional districts. Utah certainly qualifies, as would Kentucky.

Polls suggest that Mr. Paul has a sizable lead in the Kentucky race, but it might be shrinking as Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell takes to the airwaves to support Mr. Grayson. In addition, Paul will not have the help of the conservative Club for Growth, which spent $200,000 in Utah in a bid to unseat Bennett.

All about anti-incumbency?

Beyond Utah, primary results have been mixed so far. But the overarching lesson appears to be a hardening against incumbents. Utah might be merely the extreme example of this trend.

Particularly in the Republican Party, anger over rampant government spending and the expansion of entitlements appears to have driven voters further to the right. Whether they have moved as far right as the tea party will only begin to become apparent after May 18.

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