The Speaker's Lobby: What's the Matter with Utah?

By: Chad Pergram, FOX News

10 May 2010

In 2004, author Thomas Frank penned "What the Matter With Kansas?" The book studied how conservatives quashed the state's old, left-wing roots to build a Republican stronghold.

In 2010, people might ask "What's the matter with Utah?"

The short answer is absolutely nothing. But mix together what happened in Utah over the weekend along with what unfolded in a 2008 Republican primary for a House seat, and you have a distinct political narrative about the turbulence in the American electorate.

We learned Saturday night that veteran Sen. Robert Bennett (R-UT) would not return to Capitol Hill for a fourth term in January. A Democrat didn't defeat Bennett. A fellow Republican didn't lay Bennett low in the primary. No. Some 3,500 party activists short-circuited Bennett's effort to even have the RIGHT to run in the Republican primary when they ousted him at the Utah Republican convention. Bennett survived the first round of voting, but was trounced in the second round by businessman Tim Bridgewater and lawyer Mike Lee. Those two will square off in a primary next month.

In the spring of 2008, former six-term Rep. Chris Cannon (R-UT) met his political end when current Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) felled him in the primary.

Jell-O may be Utah's official snack food. But there is nothing squishy about the message Utahns sent Bennett and Cannon.

Because of its population, Utah dispatches a small delegation to Washington: two senators and three House members. Many consider Utah to be the most-conservative state in the union. Yet Utah GOP has expelled 40 percent of its Congressional delegation in just two years and half of its own Republicans. Rep. Jim Matheson (D-UT) is the state's lone Democrat in Congress.

This is a story of Republicans eating their own. And it represents the potential schisms which threaten to fracture the GOP.

"If you want change, you have to elect different people," said Chaffetz in an interview, who benefitted from the 'throw the bums out' mentality.

Chaffetz said Utah Republicans didn't like how Bennett worked with Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) to craft their own health care reform bill even though the senator opposed the Democrats' health care law. And they deeply disagreed with Bennett's vote in favor of the economic bailout known as TARP (the Troubled Assets Relief Program) in the fall of 2008. In fact, delegates chanted "TARP, TARP, TARP, TARP" while Bennett tried to address the convention Saturday.

Bennett is also a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, the panel that decides how Washington spends its money. He stood a good chance of eventually becoming the leading Republican on that committee or the Senate Banking panel. But when voters fret about an exploding federal deficit and pine for smaller government, those committee assignments don't help. Even if Utahns elected him to a third-term in 2004 with 69 percent of the vote.

"Bennett may seem conservative in Washington. But not in Utah," warned Chaffetz. "There is an anti-incumbent movement out there."

Chaffetz knows that was well as anyone. Embers are simmering, tended to by tea party supporters and stoked by Sarah Palin. Don't forget, Sen. Arlen Specter (D-PA) abandoned the GOP last spring, saying he was "at odds with the (current) Republican philosophy." Specter signaled it would be hard for him to defeat former Rep. Pat Toomey (R-PA) in a Senate primary.

And just a few weeks ago Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (R) effectively ceded his state's Republican Senate nomination to former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio (R). Crist declared he would run as an independent and not as a Republican. Rubio was surging and many doubted Crist's ability to secure the GOP nomination. Crist will remain registered as a Republican though.

Most political handicappers know there are shifts in the political plate tectonics. However, some suggest not to read much into Utah. That's because Utah's system is unique. A state convention determines who GETS to run in the primary, not routine party voters. And by nature, conventions draw the most active, energized political voices. Last August's vitriolic town hall meetings, the rise of Sarah Palin and vocal health care protests on Capitol Hill reveal that there is a segment of the population that's apoplectic about Washington. Utah is emblematic of a growing movement that frightens the entrenched GOP party establishment and could rock the ballot boxes this fall. Pols ignore this revolt at their peril.

"My victory two years ago led a lot of people into believing that Bennett could be in trouble," Chaffetz said. "When people saw I was able to unseat a 12-year incumbent, they realized they could beat people."

But Chris Cannon, the man who Chaffetz vanquished in 2008, is wary of this rebellion. He says the dissatisfaction that some voters had with Bennett is amplified by Utah's special nominating system.

"You have extreme ideologues who took control of the party and drove normal people out," Cannon said. "It's a problem that we have to correct."

Cannon argues that the current political climate rewards invective and opprobrium. He says revved-up factions latch onto the brashest voices.

"They learn to hate people who are in government, not understand how it works," said Cannon. "It is very clear there is a mass movement in America. They are ignorant. But zealous in what they are doing."

Cannon says he pleaded with Bennett to follow Charlie Crist's lead and run as an independent. But the senator wouldn't budge. Cannon says he's looking for leaders to reform the Republican party and retrench the GOP brand. And he doubts that those leading the charge now are in step with voters who aren't conservative.

"Sarah Palin is not helping us as Republicans get control of Congress," said Cannon, arguing that ideologues don't have much curb appeal outside their core of loyalists. "I'd be talking to the center. Then you develop an ethos from the center."

But working from the center is precisely one element of Bennett's undoing. Especially when it comes the senator's bipartisan work with Ron Wyden on a health care reform proposal.

"The Congress cannot and will not function properly if legislators are no longer allowed to govern responsibly and independently, while also advocating their party's principles," said Wyden. "Sen. Bennett is not only among the brightest, most consistent and most decent members of the Senate I have ever known, he is also a very conservative man in every way."

National Journal recently ranked Bennett as the Senate's 23rd most-conservative member. But that didn't get him very far back home. Think Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) is now be looking over his shoulder? His term is up in 2012. Hatch is ranked as the 30th most-conservative senator. Want an early read on Hatch's thinking? Watch how he votes on President Obama's Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan. Especially after Hatch voted to confirm her as U.S. Solicitor General last year.

While Utah's nominating and primary process may carry an asterisk with them, Kentucky's do not. And the Bluegrass State may be a better litmus test than the Beehive State to understand the force of the tea party movement and how it is invigorating conservatives. In Kentucky, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is backing Republican Trey Grayson. But Rand Paul, the son of Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX), is challenging Grayson and has the support of Palin. Who wins the Kentucky contest will say a lot about this election year.

Upstart conservatives may be on a course to defeat other Republican incumbents, too. However, the problem is that multiple challengers are running. Many of them are neophytes and unknowns. But there are so many campaigning that they dilute the vote. That allows the incumbent to hold the nomination. A good example of this came last week in Indiana when Rep. Dan Burton (R-IN) snared about a third of the vote in his state's primary. But it was enough to stave off a handful of challengers.

So Bennett's defeat is this year's canary in the coal mine. Incumbents beware. And Democrats are happy to trumpet Bennett's defeat as an example of the power the tea party wields.

"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," said Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine. "There should now be no doubt that the Republican leadership has handed the reins to the tea party."

The GOP hasn't handed over the reins just yet But the question for Republicans is will the party brass hand over the reins? Or will conservatives seize them outright?

 -          Chad Pergram covers Congress for FOX News. He's won an Edward R. Murrow Award, the Joan Barone Award and a National Headliner Award for his reporting on Capitol Hill.

-          The Speaker's Lobby refers to a long, ornate hallway that runs behind the dais in the House chamber. Lawmakers, aides and journalists often confer there during votes.