Sen. Bob Bennett lost his bid Saturday to secure Utah Republicans' backing to return to Washington for a fourth term.
Bennett fell victim to Utah conservatives, after delegates to a state GOP convention voted for attorney Mike Lee and businessman Tim Bridgewater above Bennett as their candidate for Senate.
Lee finished in first place during the initial round of balloting at a state Republican convention. Nearly 29 percent of delegates backed Lee in the first round, while almost 27 percent backed Bridgewater, and roughly 26 percent voted for Bennett.
A second round of voting was triggered because no candidate had secured 60 percent of the vote. The second round showed Lee at 36 percent and Bridgewater at 37 percent -- ahead of Bennett, who received 26 percent, dropping the senator off of the third round of voting.
Lee and Bridgewater will face off in a third round. If neither achieves 60 percent of the vote, they will face off in a June 22 primary, the winner of which is expected to have an easy path to victory in the fall in the right-leaning state.
Bennett's ouster is a blow for Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), to whom the Utah senator served as counsel, a leadership position.
He had spent the better part of the past week back in Utah barnstorming the state as part of a last-minute push for support. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) was reportedly on the scene at the state convention Saturday, too, whipping support for Bennett.
The three-term senator had angered conservative elements of his party with votes to support the Wall Street bailout program in the fall of 2008, and in part with his work to craft a bipartisan healthcare proposal with Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).
National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) said Saturday that he was confident that the eventual nominee would win the seat this fall, and pledged to support that nominee amid rumors that Bennett might wage a write-in campaign.
“This has been an open and spirited process and I want to be clear that the NRSC will wholeheartedly support the Republican candidate that primary voters in Utah ultimately choose as their nominee," Cornyn said. "I am confident that this Senate seat remains in Republican control this November.”
Updated at 6:11 p.m.