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Bennett Defeated; Matheson Faces Primary

Utah Senator Bob Bennett speaks to reporters after his defeat at the Utah Republican convention Saturday.
Jenny Brundin KUER
Utah Senator Bob Bennett speaks to reporters after his defeat at the Utah Republican convention Saturday.

By Jenny Brundin, Dan Bammes, Kim Schuske

Salt Lake City, UT –
NPR's coverage of the Bennett defeat.

Nearly 3,500 Republican delegates made national news this weekend, ousting one of the U.S. Senate's most conservative members. The stunning defeat of Senator Bob Bennett is the first congressional incumbent to be thrown out of office this year. In the final hour, all the ammunition Senator Bennett had left to propel him into a primary were two things. First, an introduction by former presidential candidate and Utah favorite Mitt Romney.

"With the sweep and arrogance of the liberal onslaught today in Washington, we need Bob Bennett's skill and loyalty and power," Romney said.

Second, his own impassioned plea to delegates that his connections and clout are what's needed now.

"Don't take a chance on a newcomer. Keep the veteran on the floor when you're playing the championship game because there's too much at stake to try things with a rookie," he said.

But the veteran senator was swept aside by anti-incumbent uprising. In the second round of balloting in the state's quirky nominating system, the three term veteran was booted. The crowd erupted with delegates waving yellow "don't tread on me flags" and rising to their feet. Though polls showed Bennett could easily win a June primary, he couldn't convince enough of the party's 3,500 delegates who tend to be more conservative than Utah Republicans overall. A shaken and emotional Bennett spoke to reporters immediately after his defeat.

"The political atmosphere, obviously, has been toxic, said Bennett. "And it's very clear some of the votes that I have cast have added to the toxic environment," he said, choking up. "Looking back on them, with one or two very minor exceptions, I wouldn't have cast them any differently even if I'd known at the time it would cost me my career.

Bennett was punished for voting for the first bank bailout bill and for co-sponsoring his own health care reform legislation with a Democrat. Delegates like Jim North of South Jordan voted for Bennett three times in the past. But he doesn't see Bennett being able to make use of that clout over the next 2 to 4 years given Democratic dominance in Congress.

"He certainly hasn't done what he claims he can do in the last 12. Bless his heart, I know he's tried," said North. He says attorney Mike Lee is a "young gun" who can pick up the ball and start to run. In the final round of balloting, Lee gathered 43 percent of the vote to businessman Tim Bridgewater's 57 percent.

"This election is about the constitution. It's about reclaiming our birthright to limited government," Lee said.

Tim Bridgewater, meanwhile, promised the crowd he'll say no to amnesty for people in the country illegally, no to cap and trade - that is, giving economic incentives for pollution reductions - and no to any further funding to the United Nations. He also vowed to dismantle the Department of Education, and reign in spending.

"It's going to take an unflinching commitment to fiscal responsibility and core conservative principles," said Bridgewater. "It'll take a constitutionalist who is also a capitalist."

Because neither Lee or Bridgewater got 60 percent of the vote, the two will face off in a June 22 primary. In other races, Governor Gary Herbert had no trouble winning his party's nomination for the special election to fill out the remainder of Jon Huntsman's term. Herbert and Lieutenant Governor Greg Bell got 70-percent of the delegate vote at Saturday's Republican convention. Herbert joined in the denunciation of the federal government.

"It is time for individual states to step forward. It is time for us to push back and restore the proper balance in this country," Herbert said. "The reassertion of state and individual rights must begin here in Utah and it has to start with us now."

Congressman Rob Bishop had one opponent in the 1st District, Mike Ridgway, who charged the leadership of the party with mismanagement. It didn't matter. Bishop far outdistanced him in the balloting. Jason Chaffetz was unopposed for the Republican nomination in Utah's 3rd District. There was a substantial contest in the 2nd District between Neil Walter of Santa Clara and Morgan Philpot, a conservative former state legislator who flogged the crowd's distaste for the Obama health care plan.

"If we lose this issue, the Republic as we know it is over," Philpot said.

A second round of balloting gave Philpot 60.1 percent of the vote, barely enough to avoid a primary.

Neil Walter may have been upstaged by the 6th grader who came from St. George to introduce him. Seleck Rigby made a point that echoed the concerns of the 34-hundred Republican delegates.

"My share of federal debt is $40,000 dollars," he said. "That's enough to pay for my college education."

The state convention also nominated candidates for multi-county legislative races and at least one incumbent fell victim to the general discontent. Ben Ferry of Box Elder County, who's been chairman of the House Rules Committee, lost his seat. Lee Perry will be the Republican nominee in House District 2.

Utah Democratic delegates meanwhile, haven't gotten as much attention as Republicans, but many of them are also angry. That anger is directed at incumbent US representative Jim Matheson from the second congressional district. Delegates voted in the Democratic Convention on Saturday to force him into a primary with political newcomer Claudia Wright. Jody Rosenblatt is a first time delegate who voted for Wright.

"The things I really care about he's just not addressing, and health care was a big ticket item for me, it was a turning point," Rosenblatt said.

Saturday afternoon both candidates made their case. Matheson said he understood that some delegates were angry with certain votes.

"I'm running as a Democrat because our party believes in doing right by our neighbors. I ask you to look at all of my record in that regard," Matheson said.

But it was Wright's supporters who showed the most enthusiasm. As she was introduced, dozens streamed into the auditorium chanting while carrying placards, and handmade signs.

Wright, a retired high school history teacher, addressed the criticism that she is unelectable as a progressive in a conservative district. She said in the last off year election only 36 percent of registered voters actually voted.

"This election belongs to whoever can get people out to vote," Wright said. "Whether they're a Democrat, a Republican, or an Independent."

Matheson had 55- percent of the votes, less than the 60-percent required to avoid a primary. In other contested democratic races, Sam Granato beat Christopher Stout for the US Senate nomination. And Joel Briscoe will face off against Anthony Kaye in a primary for Utah House District 25, vacated by Christine Johnson.

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