Senate Republican leaders on Monday searched for a silver lining in Sen. Bob Bennett’s ouster this past weekend at Utah’s state GOP convention. Bennett failed to advance to the June 22 Republican primary after finishing third in a vote of 3,500 Utah GOP delegates.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) argued that Bennett’s defeat was due primarily to Utah’s peculiar rules for primary elections; only the top two finishers from each party’s state convention make it onto the statewide primary ballot. Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) recognized the role anti-Washington fervor played in Bennett’s demise, but he made the case that Utah Democrats are similarly peeved at the political establishment.
“It is not limited to the Republican Party. I noted that the Democrat Congressman from Utah just barely made it into the primary himself, and obviously the concerns people had about Bennett were different than the concerns about him,” Kyl said. “So it’s an anti-Washington mood for sure, and I think Sen. Bennett would be the first to characterize it as that.”
Rep. Jim Matheson (D-Utah) won 55 percent of the Democratic convention vote, and he advanced to the primary. But his opponent, retired teacher and progressive activist Claudia Wright (D), won 45 percent, 5 percent more than she needed to qualify to challenge Matheson in that race.
Bennett, serving his third term, is an adviser to and close ally of McConnell’s. A senior Republican Senate aide described the Utah Republican’s loss as a profound personal disappointment to the Minority Leader.
But politically, Republicans appear less concerned, highlighting the fact that whoever wins the June 22 GOP primary is positioned to win Bennett’s seat in November. Competing in the Republican primary are attorney Mike Lee, who hails from a politically connected family, and businessman Tim Bridgewater, who has previously run for Congress.
“We hate to lose Sen. Bennett. He was a great Republican conservative. But the good news is for us. It’ll be a Republican Senator from Utah this November,” McConnell said.