Bob Bennett Loses in Republican Fight: Purge of the RINOs?

RINO-rhinoIn the leading edge of what is expected to be a minor wave, Utah Senator Bob Bennett was defeated in the Republican nominating process last evening.

Republican U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett of Utah has lost his bid to serve a fourth term after failing to advance past the GOP state convention.

Attorney Mike Lee and businessman Tim Bridgewater are the remaining Republican candidates after Saturday’s vote.

Bennett was a distant third in the voting among roughly 3,500 delegates. He garnered just under 27 percent of the vote. Bridgewater had 37 percent and Lee 35 percent.

Bennett is the first incumbent to lose his seat in Washington this year, the victim of a conservative movement angered by rising taxes and the growth of government.

Bennett was targeted by tea party activists and other groups for supporting a massive bailout of the financial industry, securing earmarks for his state and for co-sponsoring a bipartisan bill to mandate health insurance coverage.

Chris Cillizza adds:

Utah Sen. Bob Bennett lost his bid to be nominated for a fourth term Saturday, defeated at the state Republican Party convention amid a strong conservative sentiment that threatens to unseat other establishment-backed Republicans in the months to come.

Bennett, who had spent the past two decades as a respected insider in the Senate, came under fire in recent months for what some claimed were his insufficient conservative bona fides.

Bennett’s critics cited his vote for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) as well as his seat on the Senate Appropriations Committee — both symbols, conservatives said, of his lack of commitment to shrinking the size of government.

While state Republicans had expressed uneasiness with Bennett, it was the DC-based Club for Growth that helped crystallize that opposition. The Club spent more than $200,000 on a combination of television ads, direct mail pieces and phone calls designed to influence the 3,500 (or so) delegates who attended Saturday’s state convention.

Of course, Arlen Specter switched parties ahead of what would surely have been a defeat in the Pennsylvania Republican primary.  Additionally, Florida Governor Charlie Crist, who easily re-elected in 2006, was so badly trailing upstart Marco Rubio that he, too, left the GOP to continue his Senate bid as an independent.   Several other Republican incumbents are thought to be in trouble this year.

In Bennett’s case, it’s pretty much a no-brainer.   It’s Utah, for goodness sake.  If you can’t elect a staunch fiscal conservative Republican there, you might as well close up shop.

I’m less sanguine about Specter and Crist, however.  Both Pennsylvania and Florida are purple states; arguably, Pennsylvania is a blue state at this point.  So running off electable Republicans often means electing Democrats. While I understand the argument that there’s not much point in electing Republicans if they’re not going to adhere to the most basic principles of the party, electing a “RINO” is still usually a better alternative from the standpoint of conservatives than electing a Democrat.

At the same time, it’s interesting to see the “you’re not conservative enough” argument coming down to fiscal issues rather than social ones.  Bennett and Crist, at least, lost favor because of their support of the stimulus package and other spending issues rather than, say, abortion.

UPDATE: Daniel Larison issues a small correction:

The only Republicans who supported the stimulus last year were Specter, Collins and Snowe. When opposition to the stimulus became a test of party-line discipline, everyone on the GOP side fell in line except for these three. So actually it was Specter and Crist who faced rebellions because of their support for the stimulus. As a matter of partisanship and ideology, rebelling against Specter for voting with the Obama administration is understandable. Likewise, rebelling against Crist for embracing an Obama administration policy is understandable. What Bennett did was to go along with a Bush administration proposal that three-quarters of his Republican colleagues and three-quarters of the Senate supported. He wasn’t some lone turncoat joining an initiative identified entirely with the other party. I agree that it was a terrible proposal and Bennett was wrong to support it, but he was just one of a great many in the wrong. He also co-sponsored a health care bill that I think small-government conservatives are right to oppose, but which at least two of his incumbent colleagues up for re-election this year (Grassley and Crapo) have also supported at one time or another, and apparently they have done this without any negative political consequences.

Fair enough.   Many of us conflate the various bailout and stimulus packages, even though the Bush-era bailouts were rubber stamped by most Congressional Republicans.

I’ll note that my opposition has been steadfast throughout the process:  I opposed TARP for a whole host of reasons — most of which have been vindicated by history — and excoriated Bush for his bailout of the car companies over the objection of Congress.   Further, I said at the time that John McCain missed his one chance for a Hail Mary that might have actually counted for something when, after his infamous suspension of his campaign to focus on the fiscal crisis, he wound up going along with TARP rather than taking a bold NO BAILOUTS stance.

Practical governance and ideological belief are, of course, different things.  It’s mighty hard for a sitting politician to appear to do nothing while major corporations go under, threatening to turn a major recession into a depression.  So, I get why Bennett and Crist acted as they did.   But I won’t shed a tear for their miscalculating the politics of this one, either.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Dave Schuler says:

    It will be interesting to see how this development unfolds. I strongly suspect that an imaginary Republican Party is partitioning the real, electable Republican Party. So, for example, I see little actual evidence that the real Republican Party supports small government in any way other than rhetorically. How many departments or programs did Ronald Reagan end? How much did the federal government and its power decline under the George W. Bush administation? Those are the guys who were actually elected.

    What are the “most basic principles of the party”?

  2. James Joyner says:

    Fair points, all, Dave.

    A large swath of the Republican nominating electorate is genuinely fiscally conservative, believing in at least the goal of balanced budgets and opposed to expanding social programs, corporate welfare, and the like. But that swath isn’t, outside of perhaps Utah, large enough to win in the general election.

    Beyond that, given that so many once-opposed social spending programs have become beloved entitlements, I’m not sure that it’s even possible to be fiscally responsible anymore — especially since the same people oppose tax hikes.

  3. pete says:

    Maybe clarity by Republicans is less important than how the independents perceive the party.

  4. Michael Reynolds says:

    The message being sent to elected Republicans is that they must under no circumstances work with Democrats. In other words, they must not govern.

    The broader electorate will in turn learn the lesson that the GOP is the party of “No” and that if you actually want anything done you have to elect a Democrat.

    Republican fiscal responsibility has been and continues to be bullshit. Republicans spend money like drunken sailors — so long as they are in charge. Then they cry up deficits and responsibility when they’re out of power. It’s phony through and through, a bunch of drunks who support sobriety only so long as they’re barred from the tavern and once back through the doors start ordering doubles.

    Right now the GOP has no policy positions, just rhetorical flourishes tied to inchoate rage, a sense of aggrieved entitlement, nativism, racism and phony nostalgia.

  5. pete says:

    Michael, I think you suffer from RDS. There are plenty of problems with Republicans and my hope is the Tea Party begins to “sober up” the RINO’s. If you have any constructive advice for Republicans, it might help you rid yourself of the angry RDS from which you suffer.

  6. Herb says:

    RDS? That’s a new one… “Republican Derangement Syndrome,” I take it?

    You’d think one of the symptoms of RDS would be thinking that Bob Bennett is some kind of RINO.

    BTW, David Frum’s site is selling “Who You Calling a RINO” t-shirts. Bennett should pick one up.

  7. Steve Plunk says:

    I suppose working with Democrats in congress might help govern but Democrats have turned away from Republicans since they hold power. Working together is overrated. If congress failed to pass any bills except for same level funding we would get along just fine. Like a hammer looking for nails legislators look to legislate even when it’s not needed.

    I think finally some are realizing the Tea Party is about fiscal issues and fiscal issues are huge. The deficit, the debt, what’s happening overseas, it all points to big problems. Forcing politicians to take a hard line on spending makes sense on both sides of the aisle.

    If Libs think the necessary spending cuts are draconian now wait until a collapse and see what gets cut then.

  8. steve says:

    “A large swath of the Republican nominating electorate is genuinely fiscally conservative, believing in at least the goal of balanced budgets”

    This is where I think you are wrong. Fiscal conservative now means not raising taxes. It also appears to mean that the only programs you might be able to cut, are non-defense discretionary spending. Republican now defend Medicare and Social Security. No cuts in Defense spending are allowed. This strikes me as an untenable kind of fiscal conservatism.

    “I think finally some are realizing the Tea Party is about fiscal issues and fiscal issues are huge. The deficit, the debt, what’s happening overseas, it all points to big problems. Forcing politicians to take a hard line on spending makes sense on both sides of the aisle.”

    A fair number of Tea Party people work with me. When I ask them what they want to cut, I get very vague answers or stuff like the NEA or foreign aid. This seems mostly like an angry movement not a constructive one.

    Steve

  9. pete says:

    I agree with you, Steve. Many of the Tea Party people are just plain frightened and they blame the convenient “boogeymen.” But their hearts are in the right place and as their minds come around to grasp reality, they should be reminded of the popular (SS&Medicare)govt programs that take up the bulk of federal spending. THEN, they should reminded of how everyone will have to sacrifice something if the absurd imbalances of obligations to revenues is ever to be decreased. It is time for all americans to face the music and come together to make substantive change or face the real possibility of what is happening in Greece.

    Or we could be like Michael Reynolds and just keep having temper tantrums about those stupid republicans.

  10. Eric Florack says:

    What we have here is not Democrat versus Republican, but big government versus small government. Incumbents from both parties who have been part of giving big government more power yet, are being targeted, and are disappearing. I see that as a good thing.It does seem to answer the question whether not the idea of smaller government will actually catch on.

    THat would seem the biggest thorn in the side of tose who think government is the answer to everything…. Democrats.. and liberal Republicans.

    I dare to suggest to you that the reason the John McCain didn’t win in the last cycle was because the tea party movement in already begun although not by that name. He was perceived as helping to enable big government. Bennett is merely an extension of that.

  11. Michael Reynolds says:

    Pete:

    Actually I’ve supported means-testing SS and Medicare and raising eligibility age to keep pace with demographic changes since I was a 16 year-old libertarian. That would be just short of four decades.

    I’ve also supported tax increases on people who can afford it. Despite the fact that I have been (and hope to remain) in a tough bracket.

    Which puts me about a million miles closer to fiscal responsibility than the average tea partier.

    What I particularly despise is being lectured on the evils of big government by people who suckle at the federal teat and have no intention of stopping. Or people who have no objection to spending 1.5 trillion on a screwed-up war, but scream bloody murder when we propose to rationalize our cruel, stupid and inefficient health care system.

    But then as mentioned Republicans really only care about responsibility when they have none.

  12. G.A.Phillips says:

    but scream bloody murder when we propose to rationalize our cruel, stupid and inefficient health care system

    lol, Harry you almost had me then you write stuff like this….Or This

    Right now the GOP has no policy positions, just rhetorical flourishes tied to inchoate rage, a sense of aggrieved entitlement, nativism, racism and phony nostalgia.

    You sometimes seem to be so smart and informed, but then, more relentless played out talking points:(

  13. […] Specter, Crist and Bennett Posted on May 9th, 2010 by Daniel Larison Digg  Stumble Upon  Newsvine  Slashdot  Mixx  Diigo  Google  Delicious  Reddit  Facebook   At the same time, it’s interesting to see the “you’re not conservative enough” argument coming down to fiscal issues rather than social ones. Bennett and Crist, at least, lost favor because of their support of the stimulus package and other spending issues rather than, say, abortion. ~James Joyner […]

  14. Wayne says:

    Yes Republicans did spend too much although nowhere near as much as the Democrats. Part of the reason was because we had too many RINOs who was willing to spend too much. Another factor has been the Republican desire not to be labeled as a Party that can’t govern. They have never in my lifetime had a super majority. The Democrats threaten to filibuster unless they spend more and the Republicans cave.

    IMO the problem is too many have fallen for the liberal philosophy that to “govern” you must pass even more laws, regulations, and spending. The more you pass the more you are governing. So the bigger the government gets.

    It is simply not true. It is like refereeing a game. A good referee needs to know when not to plow the whistle as much as when to plow it. Our government needs to regulate and spend but to know when not to. There is a big difference in doing a great deal of governing and governing great.

    Isn’t it odd that when a conservative losses a primary, it isn’t considered purging the conservative from the GOP.

  15. steve says:

    “I opposed TARP for a whole host of reasons — most of which have been vindicated by history”

    Interesting assertion. Have you blogged on this? If so, I have missed it. We don’t really know what would have happened w/o TARP, so it is just opinion, but I certainly dont see history vindicating anything per se.

    Steve

  16. Raoul says:

    Steve, exactly. How has one been vindicated opposing TARP- or the opposite?

  17. Barry says:

    James: “Further, I said at the time that John McCain missed his one chance for a Hail Mary that might have actually counted for something when, after his infamous suspension of his campaign to focus on the fiscal crisis, he wound up going along with TARP rather than taking a bold NO BAILOUTS stance.”

    Which would have crashed the financial system of the USA and the world, in October 2008. Now, in a way it’d have been nice, since that would have made the election even more of a Democratic blow-out than it was, and would have made a bunch of GOP Senators piss their pants when they saw the destruction.

    Which is why they didn’t do that.

  18. James Joyner says:

    Interesting assertion. Have you blogged on this? If so, I have missed it. We don’t really know what would have happened w/o TARP, so it is just opinion, but I certainly dont see history vindicating anything per se.

    One can’t do historical counterfactuals with much certainty. I mean that my objections have been vindicated, not that my preferred policy has been vindicated.

    Most notably, TARP wound up being a blank check to the executive and was used completely differently than Congress intended. Additionally, it removed moral hazard, in that the firms that took big risks and won got to keep the money and those who lost got bailed out. Win-Win.

  19. Steve says:

    I think you’re missing why Bennett was targeted. Many Republican Senators voted for TARP and they aren’t being targeted.

    It was putting his name on the Wyden-Bennett health care bill that got the Club for Growth after Bennett. After that, TARP became simply a justification for their position.

  20. Juneau: says:

    What I particularly despise is being lectured on the evils of big government by people who suckle at the federal teat and have no intention of stopping. Or people who have no objection to spending 1.5 trillion on a screwed-up war, but scream bloody murder when we propose to rationalize our cruel, stupid and inefficient health care system.

    War = Good , Health Care = Bad. Tell me Mr. Reynolds, are your “opponents” positions really that simplistic to you, or do you use that argument to illustrate a larger point?

    47% of Americans don’t pay any FICA at all. The “rich” can’t be taxed enough to pay for all the goodies that Obama has already committed us to. The NYT came out today with a recommendation to Greece that one thing it should do, in order to become solvent again, is go back to privatized health care and dump their version of ObamaCare.

    Now that it is signed into law it has been revealed that – imagine this – the new health care program will NOT save money – it will cost money, and jobs, and people won’t be able to keep their current insurance, and Obama WILL raise taxes on the middle class to pay for it, and Medicare WILL be cut, and the so-called “death panels” DO exist in the legislation.

    An honest person would admit that it is bad healthcare, passed on the back of dishonest statements. So, yeah, I’m passionately against it…

    If you are a true libertarian (rather than a closet socialist liberal), pray tell where is our country going to get the money to pay for this stuff? And, by the way, why are you so apparently content to give government control of the most intimate aspect of our lives – our relationships with our doctors and health providers?

    Doesn’t seem like a very libertarian stance…maybe you can explain the dissonance between your position and your stated political leanings?

  21. Juneau: says:

    I think it can be safely said that TARP is demonstrably a failure – direct observation provides proof enough. Only, what, 20% of the funds were spent in the first 12 months? Whatever the figure was, passing TARP was definitely not the emergency situation that it was promoted as.

    Go back to the “jobs created” fiasco where they were literally making up numbers to try and show that the money had some impact – they were, and are, desperate to show that it had some positive impact. Even going as far as changing the way we define growth. I mean, please – what legitimate, measurable metric for the economy has ever used the phrase “jobs created or saved?”

    The people that are in charge of calculating the job numbers all agree that there is no way to measure if ANY jobs have been “saved.” This is just smoke and mirrors…

  22. […] making him the first House appropriator to lose in a primary since 1980. Over the past weekend, Utah Republicans denied three-term Sen. Bob Bennett a spot in the party’s primary, making him the first Senate appropriator ousted in a nomination contest since Clifford Case of New […]