In his third term in the Senate, Bob Bennett finds himself in unfamiliar and unfriendly waters, roiled by public frustration with Washington and with at least two sharks circling, believing the Republican senator might be vulnerable.
Attorney General Mark Shurtleff is expected to announce his Senate bid today and Tim Bridgewater abandoned his bid for state party chairman last week, saying he heard all over the state that delegates wanted a more conservative choice for senator.
Bennett was a prime target of tax protesters at "Tea Party" rallies last month, who booed the junior senator for supporting a bank bailout last year; conservative state legislators are breaking with Bennett and lining up with his challengers; and Shurtleff's internal polling shows Bennett might have cause for concern.
"In uncertain times there is always an instinct to say, 'Well, throw everyone out,'" Bennett told The Salt Lake Tribune last month at a campaign event when he hosted Mitt Romney, who is wildly popular in Utah GOP circles. "I don't think frankly that it goes beyond a certain minority of the members of the party, but it's clearly there and that's one of the reasons we are starting early and organizing so thoroughly, because we want to be sure we're ready for it."
There is no way to tell for sure how deep the discontent runs, but results from Shurtleff's internal poll obtained by The Tribune signals Bennett's potential weakness.
The survey, by New Jersey-based National Research Inc., found that Shurtleff polls ahead of Bennett among GOP delegates, and that 26 percent of those delegates viewed Bennett unfavorably. In a head-to-head contest, Bennett would get 38 percent of the delegate vote, Shurtleff 31 percent with 24 percent undecided. The poll of 300 delegates was conducted in February.
Veteran Utah pollster Dan Jones, who is not working for either side, said it was Shurtleff's poll numbers that got him interested in running the race.
"I think Shurtleff feels like Bennett is vulnerable and Bennett feels that he is vulnerable," Jones said, although polls done so far in advance of the June 2010 state Republican Convention are "fickle" and prone to huge swings.
Bennett's campaign says its internal polling shows his approval is still high and his advisers believe he can make a compelling case about why he should be re-elected and weather the storm.
"Right now there is a real toxic atmosphere for anything that has anything to do with Washington," said Jim Bennett, the senator's son and campaign manager. "You're seeing the tide turn as Senator Bennett engages directly with people involved in the political process. It's definitely something that Senator Bennett can change and is changing."
This week, Bennett released new ads featuring an endorsement from Romney on the senator's Web site, where he is touted as "Utah's Conservative Choice." The campaign also sent out mailers with the Romney ad.
But Bennett's critics are targeting him because, as far as they're concerned, he hasn't been conservative enough.
Perhaps the loudest criticism of Bennett stems from his support for the first Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, which channeled $350 billion to embattled banks. Bennett said it was urgently needed to avert a meltdown of the global financial system, but he has opposed subsequent bailouts put forward by the Obama administration.
Adam Gardiner, who organized the Tea Party rally in Salt Lake City, where Bennett was booed and jeered for backing TARP, said there is a feeling among the people he has talked to that he's out of touch with the state and too willing to go along with the Democrats. "I think it's been a lot of things mounting to where they're just sick of the good-ol'-boys network," he said.
Bridgewater says he's running because he fears the Obama administration is moving the country "toward a dependence on government" and a system of government intervention that "strikes many Utahns as contrary to the American values system."
There is an angst among Utah Republicans, he said, and people he has talked to think that now is the time to bring in a new generation of politicians. "I disagree with [Bennett] on some policies, but I think he's served the state nobly for almost two decades," he said.
Democrats have recruited restaurateur Sam Granato to take on the winner of the Republican fight.
The situation plays out in a political environment fundamentally changed by Jason Chaffetz's defeat of former Rep. Chris Cannon, which has emboldened conservative challengers.
But Quin Monson, a political science professor at Brigham Young University, said Bennett isn't Cannon, who was dragged down by his involvement in immigration issues. The opposition, he said, "doesn't seem to be gurgling out there as strong" as it did with Cannon.
While Bennett might be vulnerable at the GOP Convention, where conservatives dominate, he would be tough to beat in a primary election.
"He's just too good a politician to let this slip through this hands," said Monson.
In addition to voting against all the stimulus funding this year, Bennett has:
» Fought the Obama administration over its slowdown of oil and gas exploration by holding up Interior Department nominees
» Slapped the administration over a memo warning of domestic terrorist recruiting among disgruntled veterans and gun owners.