It was an inglorious ending to Utah Sen. Bob Bennett's long political career. The 18-year incumbent was booted into lame-duck status by Utah Republican delegates who curl their lips in disgust at any GOP pol willing to risk bipartisanship with Democrats.
On Saturday, Bennett was pretty well toast after the first ballot, where he finished a close third with 24 percent behind challengers Mike Lee and Tim Bridgewater. Finishing fourth was Eagle Forum favorite Cherilyn Eagar, eliminated with almost 16 percent. There was no way the ultra-conservative Eagar's votes were going to go for Bennett. In the second round, Bennett only improved to 26 percent and was eliminated, finishing far behind Lee and Bridgewater. Those two -- after a third round failed to select a Republican nominee -- will meet in a June primary.
Getting back to Bennett, despite his overall high marks from conservative rating groups, there were several stances on high-profile issues that caused the 76-year-old incumbent disfavor with the very conservative delegates. One was his support of an ill-fated immigration measure a few years ago.
Another was his vote in 2008 for the TARP bank rescue funding. Another was his support for a failed bipartisan health care measure that included an individual mandate to buy health insurance.
There's another, less cited reason, as to why Bennett failed to charm the rank-and-file Republicans, despite a rousing endorsement Saturday from party favorite Mitt Romney. The cerebral senator has never seemed comfortable with activist conservative GOP base. Bennett is not a regular on red meat right-wing national talk radio shows or the Fox News Channel. And his occasional yens for bipartisanship often made him a conservative widely praised by liberals in the media. Ironically, this year that type of praise backfired for the senator. In fact, we suspect that late shows of support for Bennett from some newspaper editorial boards and moderate to liberal pundits probably hurt Bennett more than they helped with the state's GOP delegates.
So what does Bennett's Utah Republican humiliation mean? It's probably bad news for his colleague Sen. Orrin Hatch, who in 2012 will have the unenviable task of telling delegates he merits serving 42 years in the U.S. Senate. Hatch was elected in 1976. It also underscores the highly polarized times we are in politically. The activist, more extreme base of both parties seem to have an undue influence. That was also evident in Utah's Democratic state convention, where that party's most popular incumbent, U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson, was forced into a primary battle by little-known far-left activist Claudia Wright, who received 45 percent of delegates' votes. Wright ran more or less on a single issue -- Matheson's "no" vote on President Obama's health care law.
We'll miss Bennett when his term ends in January. He was a thoughtful voice in an increasingly cantankerous Washington D.C. It's bad news that Congress is losing a member who was willing to listen to the other side of the political aisle and sometimes chose bipartisanship over slavish agreement with ideological noise machines.
Perhaps the senator, in his final months, can be a leader in finally getting a bipartisanship immigration reform bill into law.