WASHINGTON - As we approached the Tuesday night with the most significant senatorial primaries of the year so far, I turned for guidance to a man who had already been through the fires that define the politics of 2010.
Ten days after he was barred from the ballot in the Utah Republican primary because the 3,500 delegates to the GOP state convention preferred to give more votes to his two challengers, three-term incumbent Sen. Bob Bennett was more thoughtful than embittered.
Bennett, 76, who followed his father to Washington and Capitol Hill, is the kind of legislator reporters value, because he can speak thoughtfully and dispassionately about his colleagues’ collective mood.
I found him equally reflective of what had caused his fellow Republicans, who had elected him for almost 20 years and frequently told pollsters he was their most popular incumbent, to turn against him.
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“I’ll tell you what is new,” he said. “There is this thing called the federal government. It’s big and intimidating and it’s out of control. And whoever you are, and whatever your title, or your history, or your individual voting record, if you are part of it, you find yourself having to defend it. And sometimes, it just looks indefensible to them.”
Two days before activist Republican voters in Utah gathered for the county caucuses that chose the delegates to the state convention, they watched on television as Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi forced an unusual Sunday session of the House of Representatives to push through an amended version of the Obama administration’s health care bill. “It was a Sunday, which is a very special day for me and my fellow Mormons,” Bennett said. “And it was really a display of partisan political muscle.”
“We prepared for the county conventions like we never had before. We had every precinct covered, and we set our turnout quotas at twice the level we had ever seen before. We hit or exceeded our quotas almost everywhere, and we were swamped,” Bennett said.
“People came out of the woodwork to vote against anyone they associated with the federal government.”
In Bennett’s view, the movement to purge him took on aspects of ideological extremism.
But mainly it was a reaction against the centralization of power in the capital, a combination of bank bailouts, health care guarantees and all the other ways in which Washington has found reasons to spend money it does not have.
We saw the same sentiment Tuesday in Kentucky, where the son of libertarian Rep. Ron Paul easily defeated Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s handpicked candidate for the Republican nomination for a vacant Senate seat.
And it claimed its largest victim of the year so far in Pennsylvania’s Sen. Arlen Specter. Run out of the Republican Party last year by a GOP challenger, he fell embarrassingly to a less-known, younger congressman in a bid for the Democratic nomination.
Specter’s failure showed the Obama White House once again to be a toothless tiger – with its endorsements now having failed in Virginia, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania.
David Broder, a columnist for the Washington Post, can be reached at email@example.com.