Of the two nationally significant races in Utah tonight, one has long been resolved: Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson is beating progressive challenger Claudia Wright by better than a two-to-one margin. There will be much discussion in the aftermath about the extent to which Wright, who forced a primary by denying the incumbent 60% of the delegates at the state Democratic convention, threw a scare into Matheson for his Blue Dog ways, perhaps getting the attention of other Red State Dems who take base voters for granted. But for now, Matheson is enjoying a pretty solid win.
In the Republican Senate primary, however, AP has just called the race for Mike Lee, who’s held a narrow lead over Tim Bridgewater throughout the evening. With 85% of the precincts reporting, Lee is leading by about three percent of the vote, or just under 5,000 votes. But Bridgewater’s wafer-thin lead in Salt Lake County–and his advantage in rural counties that are already mostly in–is not going to be enough to overcome Lee’s margin in the other major population centers. So in this battle of conservatives to replace the already-discarded Sen. Bob Bennett, the favorite of many national conservatives like Jim DeMint and Erick Erickson has prevailed.
The spins wars after this primary will be interesting. As I noted in the preview for Utah, Tim Bridgewater strikes most people as, well, very, very conservative, favoring abolition of personal and corporate income taxes, the phasing out of several major federal Departments, voucherization of Medicare, and partial privatization of Social Security, along with a hard-line anti-abortion position. But the Lee’s national supporters treated Bridgewater as essentially a clone of Bennett (who endorsed him), and the runoff as the final effort to rid Utah of RINOs.
There’s nothing much in tonight’s results to indicate an ideological split in the Utah GOP electorate between these two candidates. But if Lee and Bridgewater do ultimately come to be seen as representing starkly opposed forces in the conservative movement and the GOP, then the center of gravity in the Republican Party really has moved right in a big hurry, and the much-desired “true conservative” mantle will come with a much more exacting test of fidelity to the cause.