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Republican Senate Primary

Republican Senate Candidates Mike Lee (left) and Tim Bridgewater (right)

By Dan Bammes

Salt Lake City, UT –

Mike Lee and Tim Bridgewater were the top two finishers for the U-S Senate nomination at the state Republican convention although in the next rounds of voting, Bridgewater came close to eliminating Lee and avoiding a primary. Both candidates convinced delegates they were more conservative than the incumbent, Bob Bennett. The differences between them may come down to approach as much as philosophy.

The question of wilderness designation in Utah may illustrate this as well as anything. Senator Bennett worked hard to get a compromise bill designating parts of Washington County as new wilderness and conservation areas. Both Lee and Bridgewater say input from local government leaders is important in the process. But Lee insists there's a provision in the U-S Constitution - Article One Section 8 - that also requires the approval of the Utah legislature. Without that, he says new wilderness would be unconstitutional.

"The creation of wilderness is something that uniquely affects the sovereign lawmaking authority of the host state, and I think the host state's legislature needs to be involved with that," Lee said in an inteview with KUER.

That strict adherence to chapter and verse in the Constitution is something that has made Lee a darling of the Tea Party movement and other conservative groups. University of Utah law professor Wayne McCormack says it's a good political argument but less effective as a legal one.

McCormack says, "The Supreme Court has a case that's almost directly on point with this from 1976 in which that argument was made that the federal government can't regulate without the consent of the states on public lands. This was the Wild Horses and Burros Act. And the Supreme Court said this is U.S. property that preceded statehood and Article 4 gives the federal government specific regulatory power."

For Bridgewater, it's more an issue of practical politics. In an interview with KUER, he said the state shouldn't be locking up land unless there's broad agreement. "The local leaders absolutely have to have a voice in the process, and there should be more input from the state legislature, the governor, as well as county commissioners, mayors, those who are elected by the citizens of the state to determine the best policy for the state long-term."

The practical political side may be what's won Bridgewater the support of many business and elected leaders, including the man he defeated at the convention, Senator Bob Bennett. Darcy Van Orden, a leader of the grassroots group Utah Rising doesn't think that's an advantage.

"When Bob Bennett came out and endorsed Bridgewater, I think it kinda sent shock waves through this movement. I think a lot of people questioned and started to say, I thought we just got rid of Bob Bennett,' and they really started to wonder," she said on the day her group and a number of other Tea Party and 9/12 groups endorsed Lee.

A series of debates between the candidates, though, has shown little difference on most policy issues. Both see excessive federal spending as a threat to the nation's future. Both oppose the Obama health care plan. They've turned to criticism of each other's public careers as they try to draw distinctions between themselves. Lee says Bridgewater's opposition to federal interference in education sounds hollow given that he sought federal funding for a software company he owned.

In a debate broadcast on KUED television June 3rd, Lee said, "I'm unique in this race in that I've never built a business, I've never made a living, based on securing government funds, funds from the federal government. Much of my practice as a lawyer has been focused on limiting the power of the federal government, not in extending its influence, not in securing government funds."

Bridgewater didn't respond to Lee's criticism directly, but in the same debate on KUED, Bridgewater questioned Lee's positions on the disposal of radioactive waste in Utah. "He fought against, on a states' rights basis, Utah accepting nuclear waste when he was in the governor's office and then he went to work for EnergySolutions and sued the state to force them to take foreign nuclear waste, and now he's for a ban or some limited ban, so he's been inconsistent on this issue."

Lee points out that the issue he worked on in the governor's office involved dangerous, highly radioactive fuel rods from nuclear power plants, while EnergySolutions handles far less hazardous low-level waste.

The Republican nomination for the U-S Senate is now out of the hands of convention delegates, who tend to be more politically active and more conservative than Utah's Republican voters generally.

Robert Burt lives in Lindon, and he plans to vote in next week's primary. He says, "I think both men are grounded within the typical principles of the Republican Party, the typical . . . what voters look for. It's just coming down to what their particular background is."

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