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The national "tea party" movement toppled its first incumbent Saturday as long-serving Sen. Robert F. Bennett was defeated at the Utah Republican Party's nominating convention, the most powerful demonstration yet of the anti-Washington tide that is altering the nation's political landscape.
Bennett, seeking a fourth term after 18 years in office, became the first sitting senator to fall in the ideological battle being waged in his party. Although he has long been viewed as a reliable conservative with deep Mormon roots, Republicans rallied behind two other candidates -- neither of whom has held political office -- who will compete for the nomination at a June primary.
National tea party organizers embraced the victory as a major first step toward returning the Republican Party to its conservative foundations of limited government and low taxes. At the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City, tea party activists cheered and celebrated after Bennett lost.
"This is a symbol that the tea party movement and the broader limited-government agenda is huge," said Brendan Steinhauser, grass-roots director for the national tea party organization FreedomWorks, which set up a booth at the convention to herald Bennett's defeat. "It's the center of American politics. It's everything that we've been saying it is. It's not just a protest movement; it's a political force."
Steinhauser said Bennett's defeat represents a critical first win that will help build momentum in other contests across the nation. Next up is Kentucky, where tea party candidate Rand Paul is running hard in a GOP primary battle against Trey Grayson, the handpicked candidate of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Some tea party activists suggested they may seek to oust Utah's other senator, Orrin G. Hatch (R), whose term expires in 2012.
Until this year, Bennett faced few challenges in this reliably Republican state. In 2004, no one opposed him for the Republican nomination, and his general election victory was so assured that he didn't spend a penny on television ads. In 2006, he earned a 93 percent approval rating among Republican primary voters.
But Bennett came under fire from conservative activists for voting for then-President George W. Bush's bank bailout measure in 2008 and, more recently, for working with Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) on a health-care overhaul bill. Bennett has also taken heat for reneging on his campaign promise in 1992 to serve just two terms. He is also a close adviser to McConnell, and he sits on the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, which opened him to blame for ballooning government spending.
And it was not just the tea party that criticized him; the Washington-based Club for Growth, a long-standing advocate for fiscal conservatism, began running television ads against Bennett in March -- and set up a booth, alongside FreedomWorks, at the convention on Saturday.
"The political atmosphere, obviously, has been toxic, and it's very clear some of the votes that I have cast have added to the toxic environment," Bennett told reporters after the defeat. Choking up, he added, "Looking back on them, with one or two very minor exceptions, I wouldn't have cast them any differently even if I'd known at the time it would cost me my career."
Indeed, Bennett's critics have been harsh and unequivocal. One of them posted this comment on Twitter during the convention: "Bob Bennett fails to even mention the Constitution once during his speech before the delegates." Others chanted "TARP! TARP! TARP!" as he spoke, a reference to his vote for the bank bailout, the Troubled Assets Relief Program.
Bennett lost in the second of three ballots under Utah's complicated nominating system. He did so despite an introduction from former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who is enormously popular in Utah. Attendees applauded more vigorously for a video of Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), supporting one of Bennett's rivals, than they did for Romney, who won 89 percent of the vote in Utah's 2008 presidential primary.
"You're seeing the rise of a new group of conservative leaders," said Rob Jordan, vice president of state and federal campaigns for FreedomWorks. "Maybe guys like Romney are fading a bit, even in Utah. We're going to build on the momentum from this race."
The two remaining candidates -- lawyer Mike Lee and businessman Tim Bridgewater, both of whom courted tea party voters -- faced off in a third ballot. Because neither won 60 percent of the vote, they will compete again in a June 22 primary election. Either way, Utah is all but sure to elect a candidate in the fall with significant tea party support.
In some states, however, the tea party's influence could produce Republican candidates who are so conservative they face difficulty against Democrats in the fall elections. In New York last year, a tea party candidate forced a more moderate Republican to withdraw from a congressional race, and then lost to Democrat Bill Owens.
The Democratic Party is hoping for something similar in Kentucky, a conservative state where Democrats are regularly elected to statewide office. One view holds that the Democratic nominee -- to be chosen May 18, just like the Republican nominee -- would have a better shot at taking the Senate seat in a match-up with Paul precisely because of his tea party credentials.
"That the Tea Party would consider Bob Bennett -- one of the most conservative members of the U.S. Senate -- too liberal just goes to show how extreme the Tea Party is," Timothy M. Kaine, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said in a statement. "This is just the latest battle in the corrosive Republican intra-party civil war . . . If there was any question before, there should now be no doubt that the Republican leadership has handed the reins to the Tea Party."