WASHINGTON — As we approached the Tuesday night with the most significant senatorial primaries of the year so far, I turned for guidance to a man who had already been through the fires that define the incendiary politics of 2010.
Ten days after he was barred from the ballot in the Utah Republican primary because the 3,500 delegates to the GOP state convention preferred to give more votes to his two challengers, three-term incumbent Sen. Bob Bennett was, as I expected, more analytical than angry, more thoughtful than embittered.
Bennett, 76, who followed his father to Washington and Capitol Hill, is the kind of legislator reporters value, because he can speak thoughtfully and dispassionately about his colleagues’ collective mood without subjecting you to gobs of self-serving rhetoric.
Now, I found him equally reflective of what had caused his fellow Republicans, who had elected him for almost 20 years and frequently told pollsters he was their most popular incumbent, to turn against him.
“I’ll tell you what is new,” he said. “There is this thing called the federal government. It’s big and intimidating and it’s out of control. And whoever you are, and whatever your title, or your history, or your individual voting record, if you are part of it, you find yourself having to defend it. And sometimes, it just looks indefensible to them.”
Discontent in Utah
Two days before activist Republican voters in Utah gathered for the county caucuses that chose the delegates to the state convention, they watched on television as Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi forced an unusual Sunday session of the House of Representatives to push through an amended version of the Obama administration’s health care bill.
“It was a Sunday, which is a very special day for me and my fellow Mormons,” Bennett said. “And it was really a display of partisan political muscle.”
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“We prepared for the county conventions like we never had before. We had every precinct covered, and we set our turnout quotas at twice the level we had ever seen before. We hit or exceeded our quotas almost everywhere, and we were swamped. People came out of the woodwork to vote against anyone they associated with the federal government.”
In Bennett’s view, his fate was sealed by the county conventions, and nothing that happened thereafter could change it. The efforts against him by out-of-state Tea Party people and other right-wing organizations simply let them claim credit for something they were late in joining, he said. And the efforts by wildly popular Mitt Romney and other establishment Republicans to save his candidacy were equally futile.
At the fringe, the movement to purge him took on aspects of ideological extremism, Bennett said. “I was asked several times about my position on the 17th Amendment, providing for the direct election of senators,” Bennett said. “They viewed that as the opening effort by Washington to usurp the power that the Constitution had placed in the hand of state legislatures.”
But mainly it was a mainstream reaction against the centralization of power in the capital, a combination of bank bailouts, health care guarantees and all the other ways in which Washington has found reasons — or excuses — to intervene and to spend money it does not have.
That reaction is not confined to Utah. And it may not even be representative of the state. If Bennett had made the primary ballot, he claims, he would have won renomination easily.
But we saw the anti-Washington sentiment Tuesday in Kentucky, where the physician son of libertarian Rep. Ron Paul easily defeated Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s handpicked candidate for the Republican nomination for a vacant Senate seat — and credited his win to the Tea Partiers.
The same sentiment carried to Arkansas, where incumbent Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln was forced into a runoff by her labor-backed challenger.
And it claimed its largest victim of the year so far in Pennsylvania’s Sen. Arlen Specter. Run out of the Republican Party last year by a GOP challenger, he fell embarrassingly to a less-known younger congressman in a bid for the Democratic nomination. His failure showed the Obama White House once again to be a toothless tiger — with its endorsements now having failed in Virginia, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. No good news for the president there.