SALT LAKE CITY | Once-popular Sen. Robert F. Bennett fell victim to a growing national conservative movement with his stunning defeat at Utah's GOP convention.
Delegates voted Saturday to bar the 76-year-old senator from seeking a fourth term, making him the first congressional incumbent to be ousted this year and demonstrates the challenges candidates face from the right in 2010.
Mr. Bennett was under fire for voting to bail out Wall Street, co-sponsoring a bipartisan bill mandating health insurance coverage and for aggressively pursuing earmarks.
"The political atmosphere obviously has been toxic, and it's very clear that some of the votes that I have cast have added to the toxic environment," Mr. Bennett told reporters Saturday, choking back tears.
"Looking back on them, with one or two very minor exceptions, I wouldn't have cast any of them any differently, even if I had known at the time they were going to cost me my career."
Mr. Bennett told the Associated Press he wouldn't rule out a write-in candidacy. State law prohibits him from running as an independent.
"I do think I still have a lot of juice left in me," Mr. Bennett said following his loss. "We'll see what the future may bring."
Mr. Bennett survived a first round of voting Saturday among roughly 3,500 delegates, but was eliminated when he finished a distant third in the second round. He garnered just under 27 percent of the vote, while businessman Tim Bridgewater had 37 percent, and lawyer Mike Lee got 36 percent. Mr. Lee and Mr. Bridgewater will face each other in a June 22 primary after a third round of voting in which neither got the 60 percent necessary to win outright.
"Don't take a chance on a newcomer," Mr. Bennett had pleaded in his brief speech to the delegates before the second round of voting began. "There's too much at stake."
Yet that urging, and Mr. Bennett's endorsements by the National Rifle Association and former presidential candidate Mitt Romney, did little to stave off anger toward the Washington establishment from delegates.
"The bailout bothers me. That in and of itself is unforgivable in my opinion," said delegate Scott White, a 58-year-old general contractor from Taylorsville.
Mr. Bennett initially faced seven Republican opponents who said he wasn't conservative enough for Utah. Mr. Lee, 38, and Mr. Bridgewater, 49, campaigned largely by saying they're better suited to rein in government spending than Mr. Bennett.
"I will fight every day as your U.S. senator for limited government, to end the cradle-to-grave entitlement mentality, for a balanced budget, to protect our flag, our borders and our national security and for bills that can be read before they receive a final vote in congress," Mr. Lee said in his convention speech.
Mr. Bennett's defeat is the latest in a series of surprising political developments in a year in which the "tea party" movement has amassed growing power.
In January, then-little-known Republican Scott Brown won the Massachusetts Senate seat long held by the late Edward M. Kennedy. Several incumbents from both parties have opted not to seek re-election as they face difficult challenges, and GOP Florida Gov. Charlie Crist recently opted to run as an independent in his Senate bid rather than face defeat at the hands of his own party.
Other GOP candidates likely were eyeing Saturday's results to see if it's an indicator of things to come.
In Arizona, Sen. John McCain is in a tough primary fight against former Rep. J.D. Hayworth, a conservative talk-radio host. In Kentucky, Rand Paul, the son of libertarian Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, is gaining momentum in his challenge against the GOP establishment's pick of Secretary of State Trey Grayson to replace retiring Sen. Jim Bunning.
In New Hampshire, former Attorney General Kelly Ayotte is battling three Republican challengers to fill the seat being vacated by retiring Republican Sen. Judd Gregg.