The “tea party” movement has carved a major notch in its political pistol grip.
At the GOP nominating convention in Salt Lake City Saturday, Sen. Bob Bennett (R) of Utah came in a distant third behind two other Republican candidates vying for the Senate seat Mr. Bennett has held for three terms.
Bennett is generally considered to be conservative – he favors gun rights and tighter immigration controls, and he has a lifetime rating of 84 percent from the American Conservative Union. But he was targeted by tea partyers for his 2008 vote in favor of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) bank bailout. Bennett also had co-sponsored a bipartisan bill to mandate health insurance coverage (although he eventually voted against the health care reform bill President Obama signed).
The remaining Republican candidates after Saturday's vote – attorney Mike Lee and businessman Tim Bridgewater – were to face each other in a second round of voting by the 3,500 delegates. If neither Lee nor Bridgewater gets 60 percent of the vote, they will face off in a primary election June 22.
Bennett’s involuntary retirement from the family business (his father had been a US senator for four terms) reflects general political agitation these days – especially the growing clout of tea party conservatives and libertarians who’ve moved from raucous demonstrators to a movement that has increasing impact.
"The tea party movement has achieved a prominence in the conversation in part because of the silence from the traditional elected Republican leadership, and now that leadership has been driven right by tea party rhetoric," University of Wisconsin political scientist Charles Franklin told the Monitor’s Patrik Jonsson last month. "That has moved the party in the tea party direction, but it can't help but also bring the tea party a little bit closer to the political mainstream."
Whether or not the tea party movement can really influence elections – this year or in 2012 – is an open question. For now, most of its political impact is within the Republican Party – particularly in the selection of candidates, where activists tend to have more clout.
More than a quarter of all Republicans and 36 percent of conservative Republicans say they're more likely to back a tea party-affiliated candidate, according to a recent Washington Post poll, as are 39 percent of those who consider themselves to be "very conservative."
That turned out to be the case in Utah this weekend, where longtime conservative Republican Bennett was ousted despite what in effect was a rousing nomination speech by that other well-known Mormon politician and presidential candidate – Mitt Romney.
It’s not exactly a trend, but Bennett’s political demise follows Florida Governor Charlie Crist’s decision to run as an independent in that state’s US Senate race – pushed out by a more-conservative-than-thou fellow Republican favored by tea partyers.
Democrats are making hay of the GOP’s rightward tug by tea party activists.
"If there was any question before, there should now be no doubt that the Republican leadership has handed the reins to the Tea Party," Democratic National Committee chairman Tim Kaine said in a statement.