Anti-Incumbent Mood Snares Utah Republican

Democrats aren't alone in attracting angry voters ready to throw them out. Three-term incumbent Sen. Bob Bennett is facing an unexpected challenge, even in solidly Republican Utah. And Utah's nomination process involving neighborhood caucuses and a state convention may give ultraconservatives the advantage.

Sunday's health care vote on Capitol Hill was just the latest flash point for an anti-incumbency fervor targeting the White House and congressional Democrats.

But Democrats aren't alone in attracting angry voters ready to throw the bums out. Three-term incumbent Republican Bob Bennett, a conservative senator from deeply Republican Utah, is immersed in the re-election fight of his political life. And Tuesday, that battle begins in earnest as Utah Republicans gather in neighborhood caucuses.

Squeaky-Clean Candidate

Bennett is not weighed down by scandal, and he has the kind of political and religious pedigree that should be unbeatable in Mormon-dominated Utah: He's the grandson of Mormon prophet Heber J. Grant. He's endorsed by fellow Mormon and former presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who is very popular in Utah. He's the son of a popular, four-term U.S. senator, the late Wallace Bennett. And he's a Republican in a state so partisan even the rocks are red.

But a November KSL-Deseret News poll had this shocking result: Fifty-eight percent of the people surveyed said they wanted someone new in Bennett's Senate seat.

And by Bennett's own count, he has just one-third of the people likely to emerge as state convention delegates at Tuesday's neighborhood caucuses. These roughly 3,200 delegates will gather in Salt Lake City on May 8 and decide whether Bennett faces a June primary for re-election or whether he gets to run at all for his seat.

Utah's Unique Nominating Process

Utah has a caucus and convention nominating process that "empowers a very small number of people who are typically to the far right and highly motivated," says Kirk Jowers, a Republican and director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah.

"If you become a delegate, your vote is worth something like 8,000 people," Jowers adds, laughing. "People were concerned about the superdelegates of the Democrats. They were wimps compared to what Utah does for its delegates."

Staunch conservatives are upset with Bennett because they consider him too soft on immigration and too cozy with Democrats. Bennett's co-sponsorship of an early, bipartisan health care bill had him appearing with Democrats before TV cameras. And Bennett voted in favor of the initial TARP bank bailout bill.

The TARP vote has housewife and Tea Party activist Kathy Smith of Marriott-Slaterville hoping she'll emerge from her neighborhood caucus as an anti-Bennett state convention delegate. She describes the bailout and Bennett's support as "unconstitutional, irresponsible, treasonous, unethical, immoral — horrible!"

"I think these incumbents and Bob Bennett especially are in big trouble," Smith says. "Either they're 'RINOs' — Republicans in Name Only — or they go in and they're soon part of the system."

Working The System

White joined a gathering last week in the auditorium at the public library in Washington Terrace. A local 912 group sponsored the event. These are strict constitutionalists who believe the nation should revert to the atmosphere of unity and purpose it seemed to have on Sept. 12, 2001, the day after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

The featured speaker was Frank Anderson, the operations director at a charter school and co-founder of Independence Caucus, a Utah-based group trying to unseat politicians deemed not conservative enough.

Anderson knows how to work Utah's unique caucus system. He helped force a six-term incumbent Republican congressman into a primary in 2008. Rep. Chris Cannon was then ousted in the primary.

"We now need you to band together and replace Bob Bennett," Anderson told the 65 people gathered in the library auditorium. "We know exactly how you can do it."

First, Anderson got the group fired up with a PowerPoint presentation titled "Bend it like Bennett." It traced 17 years of Bennett campaign contributions worth $1.3 million to 30 banks helped by the TARP bailout. NPR did not independently verify Anderson's numbers.

Then Anderson made the caucus pitch.

"If you stay home and let Bob Bennett's hand-picked supporters get elected as your delegates, our senators and representatives will get the message that ... you want to continue following Bob Bennett as he steers us toward bigger government and fiscal irresponsibility," Anderson said.

Playing Defense

Bennett is working hard to get his supporters to the caucuses. In the basement of a Salt Lake City office building, campaign workers phone former Bennett delegates, urging them to again attend their neighborhood caucuses. The 77-year-old former businessman says his campaign has sent out caucus information packets to more than 5,000 people.

Bennett says his opponents wrap together his TARP bailout vote with imaginary votes.

"So, a vote for the first round of TARP is a vote for the stimulus, even though I didn't vote that way," Bennett says. "It is a vote for the auto bailout, even though I didn't vote that way. It is a vote for Obama's budget, even though I didn't vote that way. And when they get in that mode, frankly it's a little hard to deal with."

Bennett enlists Romney and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in defending his initial vote for TARP, saying they and he agree that it was the right vote at the time, given the fear of a global economic panic. He does not apologize for his support for an early bipartisan health care bill, because "politics is a team sport," he says. And he has this explanation for how a conservative Republican in a deeply red state is struggling:

"There is a mood in the country of anger, and the reaction is, well, 'I can speak out in anger against the incumbent,' " Bennett says. "Well, here in Utah, the incumbent is a Republican. So, OK, if we're going to speak out against an incumbent, we lash out against Bob Bennett."

A $500,000 caucus campaign includes TV ads that try to turn the anger toward the president. "We have to stop President Obama's liberal agenda," Bennett says in the ad. "And the fight is now."

The First Hurdle

But the first fight for Bennett is to be able to continue to fight. His hopes lie in what he believes will be a large percentage of uncommitted delegates emerging from the caucuses.

Joining the battle is the Washington-based Club for Growth, which attacks Republican candidates not considered committed enough to "pro-growth policies, limited government, low taxes and economic freedom," as the group says on its Web site. A full-time Club for Growth organizer has been working in Utah; the group is running an anti-Bennett ad on a Fox News station in the state and it has a Web site, www.stopbobbennett.com.

But Bennett's seven Republican opponents don't need out-of-state help. They have a caucus and convention system that has proved hostile to some of the state's most popular Republicans, including some with approval ratings exceeding 80 percent. At past state conventions, some were booed or booted — or both.

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