Skip to main content
ABC News
Redefining Acceptable Ideology: Utah Primary Preview

It might seem odd to some readers to devote an entire post to Utah’s primary tomorrow, but there are a couple of contests–the Republican Senate primary, and the 2d District Democratic House primary–that raise some very interesting national issues. To put it simply, the Bridgewater-Lee Senate primary could reflect a significant redefinition of the boundaries of “movement conservatism,” while Claudia Wright’s challenge to Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson could show the limits of rank-and-file tolerance for Blue Doggy heresy even in tough political territory.

The really big news in the Republican Senate contest in Utah happened last month, when incumbent Sen. Bob Bennett finished third at a state convention, making him ineligible for the primary. Tim Bridgewater, who finished first, and Mike Lee, who finished second, are both very conservative by national standards. Both have significant Tea Party support. Both obviously bucked the national GOP by taking on Bennett.

But Lee’s supporters (including the potent combination of FreedomWorks and the Club for Growth, plus Jim DeMint’s PAC and RedState’s Erick Erickson) are treating the primary as little more than a continuation of the RINO-safari that culminated in
Bennett’s defeat.

DeMint (responding to a pre-convention mailer apparently sent out by a former Bennett staffer suggesting that the South Carolinian favored Lee to encourage dumping of Palmetto State nuclear waste in UT) has gone medieval on Bridgewater:

Last night, I learned that Mike Lee’s opponent — Tim Bridgewater — sent out a last-minute mailer telling Utah Republicans that I am supporting Mike Lee so nuclear waste can be transferred from my home state of South Carolina to Utah…

This accusation is a disgraceful LIE from a desperate candidate. My involvement in the Utah Senate race has been to provide positive support to Mike Lee, a man with the character and integrity we desperately need in the U.S. Senate. Mr. Bridgewater’s malicious and dishonest attacks on me and the state of South Carolina only confirm he would fit in all too well with the Washington establishment….

[Bridgewater has] been telling voters that he’s a businessman but as someone who ran a small business for over twenty years, I can tell you that gaming government programs does not make you a businessman. It makes you a lobbyist

Whoa! But DeMint’s not alone. Erick Erickson, who’s been pounding Bridgewater from the moment his earlier campaign to get rid of Bennett looked likely to succeed, made this assessment of Lee’s rival just prior to the May state convention:

[L]et’s go over what we know about this guy:

1.Supported NCLB
2.Supported Medicare Part D
3.Uses government subsidies, grants, earmarks and loans for businesses he has dealings with.
4.Was Western States Coordinator for John McCain in the 2008 Republican primary for president
Does this sound like a Senator who would work to correct the ills that Senator Bennett has left in his wake?

I hope the Republican delegates in Utah don’t fall for another Bennett in conservative clothing. We will just end up with more of the same

This is interesting not only because Bennett’s RINO status seemed a little dubious to many Republicans, particularly outside Utah, but because Bridgewater is hardly a western version of pre-party-switch Arlen Specter. He favors repeal of the 16th Amendment authorizing the federal income tax, along with abolition of corporate taxes. He proposes a five-year phase-out of all funding for the federal Departments of Education and Energy, and also of all federal land management programs. Yes, he was endorsed by Bennett, but was also endorsed by defeated convention candidate Cherilyn Eagar, a social conservative activist who was herself endorsed by Eagle Forum’s movement conservative warhorse Phyllis Schlafly.

It’s not at all clear what will happen tomorrow. The only independent poll of the primary, from the Deseret News, has Bridgewater ahead of Lee 42-33, with a quarter of “very likely” voters still undecided. An internal Lee poll has him up by an identical nine points, 39-30. But however it turns out, I suspect the national entrail-readers will interpret the contest as an outsider-establishment, conservative-moderate test that is really not borne out by the two candidates’ backgrounds and issue positions.

On the Democratic side in Utah, the state’s lone Democratic congressman, Jim Matheson (son of the late Democratic Gov. Scott Matheson), was forced into a primary after leading retired school-teacher (and out lesbian) Claudia Wright by a narrow 55-45 margin at the state convention. Wright’s campaign is in no small part fueled by anger at Matheson’s consistent opposition to health care reform legislation.

There has been some talk among conservatives of Republicans backing Wright’s challenge to Matheson on grounds that she’d be easier to beat in November. But that’s a bit of a reach: while Democrats do (unlike Utah Republicans) let any registered voter participate in their primary, Republicans they have their own red-hot Senate primary. And in the independent ranks, conservatives are more likely to be attracted to Matheson than to be willing to cast tactical votes for a more progressive candidate.

The recent Deseret News poll shows Matheson leading Wright 52-33. He is very likely to win, but even so, a close race will be interpreted as a leading indicator of the peril moderate-to-conservative Democrats court by opposing major progressive initiatives, even in a place like Utah.