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.
“Let’s face it. It’s not just the Democrats who’ve caused the problems most Americans are upset about right now,” said Mr. Lee. “Republicans certainly played a role in this, by which I mean the mission-creep that we’re seeing with the sprawling federal government.”
Mr. Bennett has a lifetime 83.6 percent rating from the American Conservative Union, but his critics say he’s still too moderate for Utah. The bailout vote still rankles; he’s shown flexibility on immigration reform; and he’s been known to work at times with Democrats when it comes to legislation.
His co-sponsor on the Healthy Americans Act is liberal Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat. The bill, which would establish universal health coverage through private medical accounts run by the states, is likely to emerge as a major campaign issue, even though it remains stuck in committee.
“If you look at the spectrum of conservative senators, he’s not in the top 10, he’s not in the top 20, and some would say he’s not in the top 30. And yet Utah is one of the one or two most conservative states,” said Mr. Bridgewater. Republican senators like Jim DeMint of South Carolina and Jon Kyl of Arizona, he said, “are leading the charge for conservative principles, not Robert Bennett.”
Mr. Bennett chuckles when informed that he may be a closet moderate. “My colleagues here in the Senate are stupefied over this. They’re telling me, ‘Gee, you’re not conservative enough?’”
Working in Mr. Bennett’s favor is his near-universal name recognition in Utah and the low profile of all of his challengers. When the Jones poll asked voters which candidate they would support if the election were held today, 31 percent said Mr. Bennett and 35 percent were undecided. His rivals were all stuck in single digits.
The Republican newcomers are “very bright, very enthusiastic. They’re just not that well known,” said Mr. Jones. “At the end of the day, Bennett should still win, although not by the margins he’s had in the past.”
Look for Mr. Bennett’s age to become a factor. He turns 77 in September — Mr. Bridgewater refers to him as “almost 80” — while his rivals are each at least a quarter-century younger. With age comes experience, however, and Mr. Bennett is an old pro when it comes to Utah’s primary system.
A candidate must win 60 percent of the delegate vote at the state Republican convention May 8 to secure the party’s nomination. If no candidate hits 60 percent, the top two finishers face each other in a primary election. Mr. Bennett has already spent more than $500,000 reaching out to potential delegates, who will be chosen at caucus meetings in March.
He’s got a potential ace in the hole in the form of Mitt Romney, the former Republican presidential candidate, a fellow Mormon and one of Utah’s most influential political figures. The Bennett campaign plans to unleash ads emphasizing Mr. Romney’s endorsement.
Mr. Bennett coasted to victory in 2004 — he didn’t even run any television spots — but he said he knows this year will be different.
“I recognize the anti-incumbent feeling is there, and I can’t rest on my laurels,” said Mr. Bennett. At the same time, he said, his foes can’t assume that anti-Washington sentiment will be enough to sweep them into office.
“As I watch this unfold, my opponents are in this echo chamber, and all they hear is voices saying, ‘We hate Washington; we hate Bob Bennett.’ But outside the echo chamber, there are a lot of people saying, ‘We really like Bob Bennett,’” he said. “The challenge is not to succumb to my own echo chamber.”