SALT LAKE CITY (Reuters) - Senator Bob Bennett, a conservative Utah Republican, failed in his bid for re-election in a state convention as a groundswell of discontent with politics in Washington claimed its latest victim Saturday.
Businessman Tim Bridgewater and upstart attorney and Tea Party-backed Mike Lee claimed first and second place in a second round of voting in the party poll, beating Bennett who was first elected to the Senate in 1992.
Conservative Tea Party activists -- loosely organized around demands for lower taxes, reduced spending and more limited government -- have targeted mainstream Republicans in the run-up to congressional elections in November.
Democrats will try to hold their majorities in Congress and hope they will benefit from their opponents’ infighting. Democrats control 59 Senate seats and Republicans 41.
Bennett, who won his third term in 2004 with 60 percent of the vote, has been attacked by the right for supporting the Wall Street bailout.
“Don’t take a chance on a newcomer, keep a veteran on the floor when you’re playing the championship game,” Bennett, who faced seven challengers, shouted to delegates after making it through the first round of voting.
“There’s too much at stake to try things with a rookie,” added Bennett, 76.
Lee said in an interview with Reuters: “There is a mood that has swept across this country and has certainly swept across Utah that is demanding a new generation of leaders. Leaders committed to constitutionally limited government.”
Senator John Cornyn, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, praised Bennett in a statement and said: “I am confident that this Senate seat remains in Republican control this November.”
‘THE FLAG AND THE CONSTITUTION’
Lee’s campaign has a simple theme: The federal government is “too big, too expensive and too oppressive.”
Lee “wraps himself in the flag and the constitution,” and Bridgewater talks about “balancing the budget,” Utah pollster Dan Jones said of the top two contenders.
The fiercely competitive race was kept in check by party organizers, and delegates were reminded to not boo the candidates they opposed.
However, when big screens showed photos of House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, both Democrats, the filled auditorium erupted in booing and laughter.
The anti-establishment voter revolt is threatening to cast aside some powerful incumbents such as Arizona Senator John McCain.
In Florida, Republican Governor Charlie Crist last month announced he would seek a U.S. Senate seat as an independent, avoiding a primary fight against former state House speaker Marco Rubio, a Tea Party favorite.
In Utah, Bennett brought in Mitt Romney, one of the biggest names in the Republican Party, in an effort to revive his candidacy. Romney gets high marks in the state for his rescue of the beleaguered 2002 Olympic Winter Games from scandal and financial ruin.
The delegates to the state convention were selected in neighborhood meetings earlier in the year and they are the ones who will pick the party’s nominee or send two choices into a primary race in June.
Additional reporting by Deena Beasley in Los Angeles and Tom Ferraro in Washington; editing by Mohammad Zargham
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