On the list of endangered congressional incumbents this year, Sen. Robert F. Bennett is one of the last names you’d expect to see. A three-term Republican from conservative Utah, he’s never been linked to any kind of scandal and won his last race with 69 percent of the vote.
Yet Mr. Bennett is in trouble, according to both the polls and the prevailing political winds, which are blowing from the right. One bad sign: He’s already drawn four challengers in the Republican primary.
Another damning indicator is that only 27 percent of Utahans surveyed favor his re-election, while 58 percent want someone new, according to a poll released in December by Dan Jones & Associates in Salt Lake City.
“That’s the lowest number I’ve seen in a while,” said Mr. Jones, who did the poll for the Deseret News and KSL-TV. “He should be doing better among Republicans than he’s doing.”
Analysts chalk up the anti-Bennett feeling to several factors. He’s accused of being too moderate for Utah. He introduced his own health care reform bill, the Healthy Americans Act, that is viewed by some on the right as “Obamacare Lite.” He voted to authorize the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) Wall Street bailout fund in 2008, although he has since led an effort to shut the bailout fund down. He broke his term-limits pledge in 2004 when he ran for and won a third term.
The senator is also the victim of bad timing. The prevailing anti-Washington mood among voters appears directed mainly at Democrats, as evidenced by last week’s stunning upset by Republican Scott Brown in the Senate race in Massachusetts, but nobody would be surprised if it came back to bite some entrenched Republican incumbents as well in November.
Mr. Bennett doesn’t disagree.
“There is a broad sense in the land that, ‘Gee, we hate Washington,’ and since Utah is one of our reddest states, they can’t get mad at Democrats, so they get mad at incumbents,” said Mr. Bennett in an interview with The Washington Times. “And I’m the incumbent who’s up for re-election this year.”
His most vocal opponent to date may be the Club for Growth, which took the unusual step on Jan. 8 of issuing an “anti-endorsement” against his candidacy. The influential Washington-based free-market group, which has run ads attacking his health care bill, is still considering which of his primary rivals to endorse, said spokesman Mike Connolly.
“There’s a real disconnect between pro-economic growth Utah voters and their junior senator,” said Mr. Connolly. “It’s highly likely that Utah is going to elect a Republican, and we believe Utahans want a Republican other than Bob Bennett.”
The Club for Growth has a record of boosting conservative challengers who can make life miserable for “establishment” Republican candidates. In Florida, for example, the group’s favored candidate, former Republican state House Speaker Marco Rubio, has been gaining steadily on the more moderate Republican Gov. Charlie Crist in polls ahead of the party’s Senate primary there.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee, the Senate GOP’s campaign arm, is sticking by its own, saying this month it strongly backs Mr. Bennett’s run for a fourth term.
Targeting an incumbent Republican senator may seem reckless at a time when the party has just won the 41st seat needed to sustain filibusters of President Obama’s major agenda priorities. In Utah, however, where a GOP victory in November is all but assured, Mr. Bennett’s foes say conservatives can afford to be picky about their Republicans. Frank Moss, the last Democrat to hold a Utah Senate seat, lost his re-election bid in 1976 to Mr. Bennett’s Senate colleague, Orrin G. Hatch.
Mr. Bennett’s primary challengers are millionaire entrepreneur Tim Bridgewater; Internet real estate marketer and conservative activist Cherilyn Eagar; businessman James Russell Williams III; and Mike Lee, a former assistant U.S. attorney and counsel to ex-Gov. Jon Huntsman. The lone Democratic candidate is businessman Sam Granato.
The themes emerging among Mr. Bennett’s rivals mirror many of those made popular by the surging “tea party” movement, including limited government, fiscal discipline and tax reform. Like the tea party activists, Mr. Bennett’s challengers say they are less concerned with party affiliation than with principles.