Bennett Lost in Utah. Should Other Conservatives Be Scared?

So far this election cycle, the establishment or incumbent Republicans who've found themselves on the receiving end of a serious Tea Party primary challenge have been at least somewhat moderate. Think Mark Kirk in Illinois. Charlie Crist in Florida. John McCain in Arizona.

Not anymore. Yesterday evening, Utah Sen. Bob Bennett was eliminated from the state's Republican primary by attorney Mike Lee and entrepreneur Tim Bridgewater—even though he is anything but the Beehive State edition of Joe Lieberman, perpetually at odds with his party. During his three terms in office, Bennett almost never deviated from strict conservative orthodoxy. As a result, he earned a lifetime American Conservative Union rating of 84, a National Right to Life rating of 100, a Family Research Council rating of 88, a U.S. Chamber of Commerce rating of 100, an Americans for Tax Reform rating of 90, a National Journal ranking as the GOP caucus's 23rd most conservative senator—seven spots higher than Utah's senior senator, Orrin Hatch—and the unshakable trust of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who chose Bennett as his consigliere on the Senate Republican Leadership Council.

But apparently, "almost never" wasn't pure enough for Utah's primary voters. Over the past year or two, Bennett has committed a series of sins—voting for the Troubled Asset Relief Program; proposing a bipartisan health-insurance-reform plan with Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden; sitting on the Senate Appropriations Committee—that seem to have convinced at least some conservatives that he wasn't sufficiently committed to shrinking the government. These conservatives didn't include Newt Gingrich or Dick Cheney, both of whom heartily endorsed Bennett for reelection. But still, they existed.

And so Bennett lost. Should other solidly conservative incumbent or establishment Republicans be scared? Yes and no.

The truth is, Bennett would not have lost anywhere other than Utah. For starters, it's the reddest state in the nation, so what's considered "conservative enough" there is a little further to the right than what's considered conservative enough in hotbeds of liberalism like, say, Texas or Alabama (i.e., everywhere else). Second, a major D.C. advocacy group, the Club for Growth, decided to spend a whopping $200,000 to ensure Bennett's defeat—the kind of intraparty hit that the club can afford to carry out in only one or two races per cycle. And third—and most important—Utah doesn't actually let its Republican residents vote on a full slate of Republican candidates. Instead, it convenes an odd, pre-primary convention where a select group of 3,500 delegates, who tend to be even more conservative than Utah's general Republican electorate, participate in several rounds of balloting in order to narrow the field to a measly two contenders. According to a recent Dan Jones & Associates poll, Bennett leads his closest rival, Lee, by 20 points among Utah Republicans at large—meaning that in a normal primary system, he probably would have won the nomination. But because the senator received 160 fewer delegates at the convention than Bridgewater—delegates who were undoubtedly swayed by the club's expensive anti-Bennett campaign—he isn't even getting the chance to compete. Needless to say, most other candidates nationwide don't have to worry about this sort of thing.

Which brings us to what Bennett's fellow conservatives should be scared of. Yes, the nation is in an angry, anti-incumbent mood. But such angst typically hasn't been enough to sink folks like Bennett. In Indiana last week, former senator Dan Coats defeated a pair of Tea-flavored rivals, much like Illinois's Kirk before him; Post-Bennett, the thing that Republicans should fear isn't the Tea Party. It is, to paraphrase a famous liberal, fear itself. The more that incumbents run from their records—the more they flip-flop, the more they dissemble, the more they flinch—the more vulnerable they become (see: McCain, John). Instead, they should simply lay out what they've done and what they believe in, then submit to be judged accordingly. In the vast majority of cases, this should be sufficient. After all, it usually takes more than 160 votes to lose a nomination.