Big Day for Conservatives in Utah

UPDATE: Bennett loses, with 26.59 percent of the vote. Mike Lee and Tim Bridgewater progress to the next round of voting; if neither gets 60 percent, they'll have a June 22 primary for Utah's GOP Senate nomination.

It's the first time in 70 years that a Utah party has dumped an incumbent, the Desert News reports.

And it's perhaps an even poorer than expected showing for Bennett. The senator made it only to the second round of voting, leaving two more conservative candidates, Lee and Bridgewater, to fight it out. Meaning he was the third most popular candidate at the convention.

Bottom line: conservatives and Tea Partiers succeed in ousting a sitting, three-term senator with an 83.6 lifetime vote rating from the American Conservatives Union because he's not conservative enough, after he worked prominently with Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden on health care in the past several years (on a proposal that included a universal mandate) and voted for TARP.

See below the preview, posted earlier today, contextualizing and explaining the convention vote:

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Today is D-Day for Utah Republican Sen. Bob Bennett, and for the conservative movement that's trying to oust him.

The Utah GOP is holding its convention today in Salt Lake City, and Bennett is facing the serious possibility that he will lose his own party's nomination in his reelection race--that he, a sitting Republican senator currently in his third term (that's 18 years in the Senate), will get booted from the GOP's ticket at the hands of a Tea Party-style movement of conservatives who say he's just not far enough to the right.

It's not as if Bennett is some moderate: he has a lifetime 83.6 rating from the American Conservatives Union. His opponents, however, blast him for supporting the TARP bailout.

Seven challengers are looking to oust Bennett, and they're all vying for votes from delegates elected in the state's March caucuses. After multiple rounds of voting, an anybody-but-Bennett coalition will likely coalesce around either attorney Mike Lee or businessman Tim Bridgewater. If a challenger gets 60 percent of the vote, he's on the ticket. Bennett loses. His days as a Republican senator candidate are over.

It isn't looking pretty, so far. From the Desert News:

Before formal meetings began, delegates crowded in small groups around Bennett and the seven Republicans challenging him to pepper them with questions. The major challengers to Bennett all wore microphones to help them be heard over the crowd.

But Bennett had no mic, so interested delegates had to huddle close to hear over crowd noise some snippets of what he said to questioners. Later, when former presidential candidate Mitt Romney appeared to help Bennett campaign, delegates swarmed Romney and left Bennett nearly alone.

Meanwhile at the adjacent booth, the Club for Growth, a national conservative group that has spent nearly $200,000 against Bennett, loudly blasted ads critical of Bennett, and was doing brisk business in handing out miniature "Don't Tread on Me" flags, which were popular among conservatives there.

Bennett has an ace up his sleeve: Mitt Romney, who is popular in Utah, is there at the convention, helping him campaign, and Romney will introduce Bennett on stage. But from early indications after the March caucuses, it looked like Bennett was in trouble. And conservative groups have targeted him, most notably FreedomWorks and the Club for Growth.

If Bennett loses, it will be a big moment for the right in America, which finds itself newly riled about fiscal issues and discontent with the Washington establishment, including members of the Republican Party.

The Tea Party movement will claim its biggest victory yet, having put a true Tea Party-style candidate on a GOP ballot for U.S. Senate, for the first time ever.

Don't read too much into it. Utah is a very conservative state. The GOP primary electorate more conservative there than almost anywhere else. So if this was going to happen, Utah seems like the place. It's not as if New Hampshire voters would reject Bennett as too moderate.

But it will show that an 83.6 rating from ACU just doesn't cut it in a conservative state. And it will show that, on the right, the rise of fiscal-conservative energy is real, and that it can translate into electoral realities.

Bennett isn't safe. If he loses, it means that the new movement of conservatives are capable of and willing to reject establishment Republicans and decide for themselves on a new leadership. If he wins, Republican incumbents can perhaps breathe a sigh of relief.