By any measure, Utah Senator Robert Bennett is one of the most conservative members of Congress. He has championed a flat income tax and the abolition of the inheritance tax. He favors drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The abortion-rights group NARAL gives Bennett a zero rating.
Yet this year, Bennett faces a serious renomination challenge from his right flank. Out-of-state groups are running advertisements denouncing him as a sellout. How did Bennett, of all people, find himself under the gun?
American politics is an intensely competitive marketplace. Thousands of interest groups jostle for money and attention. These groups are not competing against their ideological opposites. Nobody asks himself, "Should I give $500 to Friends of the Earth--or to CleanCoalUSA?" Interest groups compete against their allies.
Bennett is caught in a range war between two such conservative allies: the Club for Growth and FreedomWorks. Founded more than a decade ago, the Club for Growth has raised and spent millions of dollars to support tax-cutting Republican opponents of incumbents. In the past few cycles, this strategy has led to a sequence of disasters. Club-backed challenges to moderate Republican incumbents like Michigan Congressman Joe Schwarz in 2006 and Maryland's Wayne Gilchrest in 2008 tipped both seats to Democrats. The threat of a Club-backed primary pushed Arlen Specter to change parties in 2009, (briefly) handing Barack Obama his 60th Senate vote.
This unsatisfying record opened space for a competitor: FreedomWorks, an activist organization run by former House majority leader Dick Armey and generously funded by the billionaire Koch family of Wichita, Kans. FreedomWorks thrust itself to the fore of the Tea Party last year, providing the sometimes stumbling movement with professional skills. In the process, FreedomWorks gained some clout and challenged the Club for Growth to put some numbers on the board.
The Bennett race provided the perfect opportunity. Utah is supersafe Republican territory; the party faces no danger of losing the seat. And so, without endorsing any particular contender, the Club began running television ads attacking Bennett last fall. It slammed Bennett for his 2008 vote in favor of the Troubled Asset Relief Program and his co-sponsorship of the Healthy Americans Act, which would require Americans to buy insurance. In February, FreedomWorks jumped into the campaign against Bennett too, in part to forestall the rival Club from hogging the spotlight and snaring all the dollars.
Though broadly popular within the state, Bennett faces an uphill fight to keep the party's nomination. Utah's rules for picking party candidates favor highly motivated activists: Utah Republicans gather in sparsely attended caucuses to choose delegates to a state party convention. If a front runner fails to win 60% of the vote at the convention, he or she must face the second highest vote getter in a runoff primary. The results of the March 23 caucuses were ominous for Bennett: only 20% of the delegates were re-elected from the last (pro-Bennett) convention. Inflamed by the Club for Growth's final-days $120,000 ad buy, the new delegates could arrive at the convention next month in an incumbent-dumping mood.