Sometimes politicians just wind up in the wrong place at the wrong time. Think House Democrats running for re-election in 1994, or Senate Republicans in 2008.
That may be the best explanation for the predicament now facing Sen. Robert F. Bennett, whose 18-year Senate career may come to a close Saturday at the Utah Republican convention at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City.
Mr. Bennett, 76, is running third behind two of his GOP rivals, lawyer Mike Lee and businessman Tim Bridgewater, in an April 25 survey of 400 convention delegates conducted by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research for the Salt Lake Tribune.
“I just don’t see Bennett getting out of the convention,” said Brad Coker, Mason-Dixon managing director. “Running as a career politician is dangerous right now, especially if you’ve got to deal with a lot of conservative activists.”
Which Mr. Bennett does.
Under Utah’s primary system, a candidate is chosen not by the voters at large, but by 3,500 Republican delegates. A candidate must receive 60 percent of the delegate vote to clinch the GOP nomination. If no candidate receives 60 percent, then the top two vote-getters face off in a June 22 primary.
The three-term Republican is hardly a “squish” - he enjoys a lifetime American Conservative Union rating of 88 percent and has been endorsed by the National Rifle Association - but he’s been tarred as a moderate for his vote in favor of the bank bailout. His proposed health care plan, presented as an alternative to Obamacare, has come under fire for its requirement that all Americans buy health insurance.
The delegates tend to be more conservative than average voters, and that’s especially true this year as “tea party” activists flood the Republican ranks and anti-Washington sentiment runs rampant. Even Mr. Bennett acknowledges that he picked a bad year to run as an incumbent.
“The anger is palpable. The anger’s very strong, and that’s why I am in trouble,” Mr. Bennett told CNN-TV anchor John King on Thursday.
At the same time, he remains optimistic about his chances. The senator has campaigned tirelessly for weeks, attending countless breakfasts, town halls and pizza-and-politics dinners, to the point where his voice is raspy from overuse.
“[I]f I meet with the delegates, if I spend time with them going through the facts, I find I can turn them around,” said Mr. Bennett. “Just this morning, I had a breakfast with a group of delegates, and I said, ‘How many of you are undecided?’ A majority raised their hands. And that’s what makes me think I still have a shot at this.”
National Republicans have rushed to Mr. Bennett’s aid. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has campaigned on his behalf, and former Republican presidential primary candidate Mitt Romney is scheduled to introduce Mr. Bennett and speak on his behalf at the convention.
Mr. Bennett also enjoys an enormous fundraising advantage - he’s raised 20 times more than his challengers, allowing him to run television spots stressing his experience. That’s been offset partially by the Club for Growth, which has spent $100,000 airing anti-Bennett ads.
“For the past year, Sen. Bennett has been in the middle of a circular firing squad by the other seven Republican candidates and the Club for Growth,” said Kirk Jowers, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah. “It’s just hitting Bennett on all sides.”
It doesn’t help that back in 1992, Mr. Bennett said he would serve only two terms, leading to charges that he’s become closer to Washington than to the Beehive State.
Mr. Bennett’s strategy has been to run on his record, stressing that his seniority after three terms in the Senate benefits Utah. He sits on the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee and serves as counsel to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, positions of influence that would be further enhanced if Republicans take over the Senate in November.
That’s probably the only hand he can play, but campaigning on seniority isn’t necessarily the wisest strategy in Utah circa 2010.
“It’s standard operating procedure for incumbents with dealing with average voters. But delegates aren’t average voters - they’re insiders, they have agendas, and that message doesn’t work with them,” said Mr. Coker. “If anything, it’s ‘Throw the bums out.’ ”
The Bennett campaign received a boost Wednesday when the Salt Lake Tribune endorsed his candidacy, citing his experience in the Senate.
“While a majority of delegates may not realize it, Utah has an extremely valuable asset - a three-term United States senator - in Bennett,” said the editorial. “Incumbents should not necessarily serve forever. But you should have a good reason for kicking them out. That’s lacking here.”
Utah politicos envision a number of convention scenarios. Most insiders agree that Mr. Lee, Mr. Bennett and Mr. Bridgewater will make the second ballot, and that it’s unlikely anyone will receive the requisite 60 percent to win the nomination outright without a primary.
If Mr. Bennett finishes in the top two, his financial advantage and name recognition will make him tough to beat in a general primary election. Most analysts say he probably won’t make the top two, but one thing about a convention is that anything’s possible.
“There are a lot of crosscurrents going on among the delegates right now,” said Mr. Jowers. “The speeches will be absolutely huge. It will be a legitimately interesting Saturday.”