I’ve said it before and it bears repeating even louder: Entrenched incumbency is not an argument for more entrenched incumbency.
Conservatives in Utah sent that message loud in clear this weekend in ousting entrenched GOP incumbent Sen. Bob Bennett, who begged and pleaded furiously to save his hide in the weeks leading up to the state Republican convention. All together now: Don’t Let The Door Hit You on the Way Out!
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.
Under convention rules, all eight candidates appeared on the first ballot. The top three — attorney Mike Lee, former Congressional candidate Tim Bridgewater and Bennett (in that order) advanced to the second round of balloting.
Bennett was defeated there as Lee, a former counsel to popular former Gov. Jon Huntsman, and Bridgewater, who had lost two races against Rep. Jim Matheson (D), advanced to the final ballot.
The writing was on the wall back in April 2009, when I reported on the grass-roots taxpayer revolt against big-government Republicans:
Multi-millionaire jet-setter Nancy Pelosi scoffed that the Tax Day Tea Party movement was nothing more than “Astroturf” politics to protect the “wealthiest people” in America. Democrat Rep. Jan Schakowsky called the peaceable assemblies “despicable.” Other bitter, clingy Tea Party-bashers grumbled that activists only showed up where Fox News cameras were. But tens of thousands more came out in rain, snow, and cold – in Bozeman, Montana; Eau Claire, Wisconsin; Carson City, Nevada; White Plains, New York; Bend, Oregon; Lansing, Michigan; Hilo, Hawaii; Nashville, TN; and everywhere in between — with no media personalities or celebrities in sight.
If only the condescending cable TV anchors at CNN and MSNBC had paused from wallowing in gutter puns about tea bags, they might have reported an even more significant phenomenon: Tea Party protesters were as vocal in their criticism of Republicans as they were of Democrats. In Salt Lake City, Utah, a crowd of 2,000 repeatedly booed GOP Sens. Orrin Hatch and Bob Bennett, who both supported the $700 billion TARP bailout, and protested GOP Gov. Jon Huntsman’s decision to accept $1.6 billion in porky stimulus funds.
In Sacramento, Tea Party organizer Mark Meckler singled out California GOP chair Ron Nehring for waffling on proposed $16 billion tax hikes. The crowd of 5,000 greeted Nehring – who unsuccessfully tried to hitch his wagon to the Tea Party movement – with a roar of boos and catcalls. Speaker after speaker lambasted Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger for abandoning fiscal conservative principles. The loudest chant of the day: “Throw them out.”
In Madison, Wisconsin, GOP Rep. Paul Ryan – hyped as a conservative “rockstar” – was well-received. But I heard from staunch fiscal conservative constituents who refused to be silent about Ryan’s complicity. He gave one of the most hysterical speeches in the rush to pass TARP last fall; voted for the auto bailout; and voted with the Barney Frank/Nancy Pelosi AIG bonus-bashing stampede. Milwaukee blogger Nick Schweitzer wrote: “He ought to be apologizing for his previous votes, not pretending he was being responsible the entire time, but I don’t see one bit of regret for what he did previously. And I’ll be damned if I’m going to let him get away with it.”
Other Tea Party participants pointed out that Newt Gingrich, who jumped aboard the bandwagon, flip-flopped on TARP in the space of a week last September and made common cause with Al Gore and Nancy Pelosi in ads calling for immediate action on “climate change.”
Before the grass-roots Tea Party movement took them by surprise, Beltway GOP strategists argued fervently that the party’s traditional focus on taxes and spending had become outdated. The re-branders pitched their own expansive ideas to replace the anti-tax-and-spend agenda and inspire new voters. These included Gingrich’s “green conservatism,” David Frum’s proposal to raise carbon taxes, and open-borders Republicans’ plans for alternative forms of amnesty. Newsflash: Eco-zealotry and in-state tuition discounts for illegal aliens didn’t bring out thousands of first-time activists on the streets. Stay-at-home moms weren’t up all night making signs that read “Tax me more, please!”
What resonated on Tax Day were non-partisan calls to roll back pork, hold the line on taxing and spending, end the endless government bailouts, and stop the congressional steamrollers who have pushed through mountains of legislation without deliberation. This is a teachable moment for GOP public relations peddlers in Washington. While they search for the Holy Grail of Re-branding in tony salons and country club conferences, the agenda for 2010 is smacking them in the face. It’s the three T’s, stupid: Too Many Taxes, Trillions in Debt, and Transparency.
The GOP path to reclaiming power lies with candidates who can make a credible case that they will support and defend fiscal responsibility. That means acting on fiscal conservative principles now, not paying lip service later. The reckonable forces of the Tea Party movement didn’t let opportunists escape accountability on Tax Day. The GOP shouldn’t assume they’ll get a pass on Election Day, either.
As one of the most popular Tea Party signs read: “You can’t fix stupid, but you can vote it out.”
Sunlight is the best disinfectant, but the ballot box is the ultimate political sanitizer.
Conservatives are cleaning the GOP House. Bennett’s entrenched big-government Republican colleagues should take note — and prepare to start packing.
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Related from Erick Erickson at RedState: The Great Disentangling Has Begun: What Bob Bennett’s Defeat Means and Does Not
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