Will: Requiem for 'Responsible' Republicans

Utah, the reddest state, may soon become redder because it has the nation's most vulnerable Republican senator. Senate candidate selection events there (May 8), in Indiana (May 4), and Kentucky (May 18) might make May a month of Republican insurrections against candidates favored by party leaders but considered insufficiently conservative by the rank and file. And May may be prologue to further upheavals in California (June 8), Colorado (Aug. 10), and Arizona and Florida (Aug. 24).

Some commentators not known for wishing conservatism well say this turmoil bodes ill for the conservative party. And they mournfully worry that "responsible" Republicans—i.e., those who play well with Democrats—are an endangered species. But a more sanguine interpretation of the insurrections is that they indicate conservative seriousness commensurate with the liberals' agenda for enlarging government.

No Democratic presidential candidate has carried Utah since Lyndon Johnson in the anti-Goldwater landslide of 1964. In 1968 normality was restored as the Democratic nominee, Hubert Humphrey, won 37 percent of the vote. Since then, the average GOP margin of victory has been 34.5 points. In 1992 Bill Clinton finished third in Utah with 25 percent, behind Ross Perot's 27 percent. In 2008 Barack Obama did better than any Democrat since Humphrey—with 35 percent. Utah has not elected a Democratic senator since 1958.

It will not elect one this year. And it might not give Bob Bennett a third term. The grandson of a president of the Mormon church and son of a four-term senator, Bennett is conservative enough to have earned an A grade from the National Rifle Association, a 98 percent rating from the Chamber of Commerce, and 84 percent from the American Conservative Union (ACU). He is, however, 76, an incumbent, and running third. The leading candidate is attorney Mike Lee, 38, who clerked for Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito when Alito was on the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. Lee's theme is Washington's indifference to constitutional limits.

At the Republicans' May 8 convention, delegates will select two candidates to compete in a June 22 primary—unless one wins 60 percent of the delegates, thereby becoming the nominee. Seventy-five percent of the delegates will be attending their first convention, and Bennett might not hold Lee below 60.

In Indiana, Dan Coats, 66, a former senator, was supposed to waltz to the GOP nomination to fill the seat Democrat Evan Bayh is vacating. But for five years he has been living as a lobbyist in a Virginia suburb of Washington. The NRA has an ABC—anybody but Coats—stance, and the ACU is supporting state Sen. Marlin Stutzman, as is South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint's Senate Conservatives Fund (SCF). Stutzman is not running as far ahead of the presumptive Democratic nominee as his two Republican rivals, but his higher-octane conservatism may get him nominated.

Kentucky's secretary of state, Trey Grayson, is the choice of party leaders, but Rand Paul, son of Rep. Ron Paul, leads by 15 points. In California, Chuck DeVore, a state legislator and Army Reserve officer, is the SCF's choice and is running third, but is receiving conservative contributions from around the country and perhaps can take heart from events in Colorado. There, former lieutenant governor Jane Norton, who at first touted her support from John McCain, was the choice of "grass tops" Republicans, as Colorado's grassroots Republicans call them. McCain got just 18 percent in the state's 2008 presidential caucuses, and conservatives are rallying to Ken Buck, a district attorney and another beneficiary of DeMint's SCF. Norton is choosing to get on the Aug. 10 ballot by petition, which suggests anxiety that at the May 22 nominating assembly she might fail to reach even the 30 percent threshold for ballot access. In Arizona, McCain has only a 5-point lead over former congressman J. D. Hayworth.

When Florida Gov. Charlie Crist announced his Senate candidacy last May, senior Washington Republicans instantly endorsed him. Since then, there has been a 50-point swing against him. Marco Rubio now holds a 20-point lead. Rubio says Crist is not a conservative. Validating Rubio's argument, Crist recently courted the teachers' union by vetoing education reforms favored by former governor Jeb Bush, and by former senator Connie Mack, who disgustedly resigned as Crist's campaign manager. Crist has until Friday to decide to use the teachers' union—and other Democratic constituencies—as his base for running as an independent, a.k.a. a "responsible" Republican.