Businessman Tim Bridgewater (R) emerged from the Utah Republican convention as the front-runner to succeed the vanquished Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah), but he’s got to get through the GOP primary first.
“There’s no question Tim came out of that convention with some momentum,” said Dave Hansen, chairman of the Utah Republican Party.
Bridgewater took first place in the delegate count last month, but he didn’t win enough votes to avoid a primary. He’ll face attorney Mike LeeMike LeeRight renews push for term limits as Trump takes power Conservatives press Trump on Supreme Court pick Overnight Finance: Ethics chief blasts Trump business plan | Senate begins late-night marathon vote | Lawmakers look to rein in Trump on trade MORE on June 22, which will effectively decide who gets to succeed Bennett in the solidly Republican state.
Bridgewater is confident Bennett’s support will help, not hurt, his campaign.
“He was not unpopular with the voters; he just had overstayed his time in office, and so most people felt like it was time for a change,” Bridgewater said. “I think the endorsement of Cherilyn Eagar and Bob Bennett is a strong vote of confidence in my candidacy and I expect that they will help us gain more support over the last week.”
Lee’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment.
Lee has been endorsed by FreedomWorks, a national Tea Party organization, and by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), who is popular with conservatives.
But the Utah Tea Party is not getting involved in the primary.
Party leader David Kirkham told the Deseret News that even though the group worked to defeat Bennett, it will not take sides in the Bridgewater-Lee race.
And, if Bridgewater wins, he may have the Tea Party to thank for his victory.
“A lot of [Tea Party members] went out and got elected as delegates to the convention,” said Hansen. “Between the Tea Party and 9/12 and the others, a lot of them got elected.”
Bridgewater recognizes that the Tea Party has become closely integrated with the state party. The 9/12 Project is a group created by conservative Fox News anchor Glenn Beck.
“Here in Utah, we are integrated quite a bit with the Tea Party movement,” he said. “The Tea Party members are grassroots Republicans as well, and I think that there is more of an alliance in Utah than in other states, perhaps.”
The growth of the Tea Party movement in Utah has put other Republicans on notice. Rep. Jason ChaffetzJason ChaffetzSunday shows preview: Trump allies appear after John Lewis criticism White House blasts Chaffetz for threatening to subpoena ethics watchdog Schumer: GOP 'filling the swamp' by targeting ethics chief MORE (R-Utah) has been openly toying with a 2012 bid against Sen. Orrin HatchOrrin HatchDems push for outside witnesses at Mnuchin hearing Live coverage: The Senate's 'vote-a-rama' Republicans scramble on ObamaCare replacement plan MORE (R-Utah).
“I don’t owe [the establishment] anything,” Chaffetz recently told The Hill, a clear indication that the power structure is shifting toward the state’s activists.
Utah’s unique nominating system also makes it easier for outside candidates to run. A candidate must get 60 percent of the delegates’ vote at the state convention in order to become the nominee. If no one reaches that amount, the top two fight it out in a statewide primary. At the May convention, Bridgewater took 37 percent of the vote, Lee got 36 percent and Bennett had 27 percent. With Bennett out, a final vote was held between Bridgewater and Lee. Bridgewater got 57 percent, just short of the 60 he needed to clear the nomination.
Bridgewater said Bennett’s defeat at the convention sent a message to the national party.
“I think that the message from the voters is that the national party has lost its way,” he said. “We need a fresh perspective to come in and return our party and, hopefully, the country, to core conservative principles of cutting government spending and bringing up the private sector so that we can create jobs in the private sector.”
Bridgewater is aware that he may suffer a fate similar to Bennett’s.
“I believe that if Republicans don’t govern [from] core conservative principles once a new generation comes into office that the Tea Party will vote to start a third party in this country,” he said.
The primary hasn’t revealed major disagreements between Bridgewater and Lee — “it’s mostly the debate between a small-businessman and a lawyer,” he said.
“The issues primarily are who’s best positioned to cut out-of-control government spending, and my perspective is that I’ve run companies, I have a payroll, I understand … [it] would be better to go after out-of-control government spending and bailouts,” he said.
One issue the two have disagreed on is whether Congress should raise the liability cap beyond $75 million for oil giant BP.
Lee opposes the effort to eliminate a cap, but Bridgewater said he wants to wait for an investigation before deciding about liability.
“I think that BP’s a good corporate citizen and they recognize they have a lot of liability here and they’re trying to do a good job and I would appeal to them to look beyond just some cap; there’s clearly going to be a lot more damage than that,” Bridgewater said. “I’m not saying we should force the company to cover 100 percent of the damages.”
He said the federal government shouldn’t arbitrarily decide what BP should pay.
“I think we can appeal to their sense of corporate citizenship more than forcing them from the government perspective, and I believe that they’ll step up and cover a lot of the damages,” he said.
Hansen said he “wouldn’t bet the farm” on either Bridgewater or Lee winning.
“It is still anybody’s race,” he said.