Conservatives Flex New Muscle in Utah

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It was a big weekend for fiscal conservatives and Tea Partiers, not just in one state, but for the whole movement in America.


Conservatives in Utah managed to oust three-term incumbent Sen. Bob Bennett in a showdown at the state GOP convention, denying him his own party's nomination as he seeks reelection. Mitt Romney was there, campaigning for him, but to no avail. The conservatives had their day, and attorney Mike Lee and businessman Tim Bridgewater, who wound up as the convention's top two vote-getters, will square off in a June 22 primary.

"Why should I care about this?" you ask. "I'm not from Utah. The state is already represented by a Republican--who cares that a different Republican will be running for this currently Republican seat?"

Valid questions. Republican primary politics in Utah are not, generally, something people think about every day.

But this is significant, because it shows that the Right is more conservative now than it was a few years ago. Tea Partiers and other fiscal conservatives held tremendous power in this election, and they used it to get rid of a senator who isn't a liberal, by any means. He's not as far to the right as, say, conservative champion Jim DeMint of South Carolina, but he has an 83.6 lifetime rating from the American Conservatives Union.

Bennett's loss prompted this giddy response from Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine:
Today the Tea Party strengthened its hold on the Republican Party by ousting Utah's Senator Bob Bennett from the primary.   That the Tea Party would consider Bob Bennett - one of the most conservative members of the U.S. Senate - too liberal, just goes to show how extreme the Tea Party is.  This is just the latest battle in the corrosive Republican intra-party civil war that has resulted in the Tea Party devouring two Republicans in just as many weeks.   If there was any question before, there should now be no doubt that the Republican leadership has handed the reigns to the Tea Party.

"Intra-party civil war" is a colorful way to put it, but there's truth in what Kaine is saying.

Bennett was brought down for two main reasons. He worked with Democrat Ron Wyden on health care (and supported an individual mandate), and he voted for the TARP bailout.

Coincidentally, lots of lawmakers voted for the TARP bailout. Lots of Republicans voted for it. It passed at the urging of President Bush's Treasury secretary, Hank Paulson.

Utah will, most likely, be represented by a Republican next year. With Bennett gone, that means the U.S. Senate just gained a bona fide Tea Partier.

Bennett wasn't just edged out, either. He went down in flames. He only made it to the second round of voting, and collected 26.59 percent of the vote, placing third as Lee and Bridgewater went on to the final round. A GOP incumbent could be expected to make it to the last round of voting. Not so.

The Tea Party/fiscal-conservative movement presses forward after this weekend, not just pleased with the result, but emboldened on a national scale. One of the big questions surrounding the new conservative movement has been answered: even though Tea Partiers account for a vast minority of the nation (4 percent participation, 18 to 20 percent support nationwide, according to polls) it can, under the right circumstances, effect real change in elections and install new representatives in Washington.
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Chris Good is a political reporter for ABC News. He was previously an associate editor at The Atlantic and a reporter for The Hill.

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