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Jim Bennett is ready to jump into the U.S. House special election. He's filled out the papers and signed his name. There's one problem: The party he wants to file with doesn't exist yet, according to the state.
Bennett, a son of the late three-term Sen. Bob Bennett and a registered Republican until Donald Trump's presidential run, attempted to submit his candidacy Friday under the recently formed centrist United Utah Party. That group hasn't been established by the lieutenant governor's office.
Although Bennett submitted the 2,000 signatures, constitution and bylaws necessary to form the party Friday morning also the last day to file for outgoing Rep. Jason Chaffetz's 3rd District seat it was too late. State officials did not have time to verify the information before the 5 p.m. special election deadline.
It typically takes up to 30 days to register a party, which must be completed before a candidate can enter the race under that banner. So Bennett's application was rejected and will be returned by mail, said Utah Elections Director Mark Thomas.
"It seems to be common sense that you don't allow a candidate on the ballot unless their party is certified," Thomas said.
Bennett may register as an unaffiliated candidate until June 12 (by gathering 300 signatures). But he feels purposefully thwarted and will only file without a party "if that's my only option."
"We don't think that's appropriate," Bennett said. "We've done everything in our power to comply with the law."
He plans to challenge the election office's determination, suggesting that he should be able to file provisionally while the party's certification is pending.
Thomas insisted that isn't allowed. He also said he warned Bennett on Thursday and Friday that "it's just something we weren't going to do."
"He was clearly made aware of that," Thomas said.
The United Utah Party can continue to support and endorse Bennett, Thomas added, but that party label won't appear next to his name on the ballot. That option still allows him to skip the primary and campaign directly for the general election.
Like his father and grandfather four-term U.S. Sen Wallace Bennett Jim Bennett considered himself a staunch member of the GOP. He veered from that track in 2010 to work for a Democrat after tea-party delegates replaced his dad with U.S. Sen. Mike Lee, but he quickly returned to the fold.
During the presidential campaign, he went online and changed his voter status to unaffiliated "when it was clear Trump was going to be the nominee. I thought, 'I don't want to be affiliated in any way with the party of Trump.' " He voted for Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson.
Despite the dismal track record of third parties in Utah, Bennett and his new centrist party believe a lot of voters like him are looking for a new political home.
"I have a legitimate shot," Bennett said in announcing his candidacy. "The amount of disaffection with the Republican Party in the state of Utah is unprecedented. And I think a number of people who have been sitting on the sidelines because they're not comfortable going to extremes of either party are going to discover that there's a credible candidate that can win this that isn't on either extreme."
Republicans last year had their worst-in-decades presidential showing in Utah, winning the state with just 45 percent. Democrat Hillary Clinton picked up 27 percent and independent Evan McMullin siphoned off 21 percent.
Still, GOP dominance is overwhelming. Some 715,000 voters are registered Republicans, compared with just 175,000 Democrats. But a huge pool of voters 600,000 remains unaffiliated. Those are the ones Bennett and his fellow United Utah Party founders believe could be tapped as a new political force, along with members of the two major parties who are ready to give up on them.
Bennett's platform pushes for "congressional accountability," term limits and a middle-of-the-road reform on health care that neither champions Obamacare nor what existed before its implementation.
"This campaign is in its infancy, and we're still working to get up to speed," he said during a news conference Friday.
Bennett, a resident of Sandy, has a lot of political experience.
He ran for the state Legislature in 2006, narrowly missing out on the nomination at the GOP convention. But most of his political work has been behind the scenes. He worked on all four of his father's Senate campaigns, beginning as a "punk kid stuffing envelopes" in 1992 and running through his time as campaign manager in 2010, when Bennett was ousted at the Utah Republican Convention. He also worked for Fred Lampropoulos in the 2004 governor's race, Salt Lake County mayor hopeful Ellis Ivory that same year, and Sen. Orrin Hatch in 2006.