Last month, Utah Republicans chose two grassroots primary candidates, Tim Bridgewater and Mike Lee, to run for Senate. Incumbent senator Bob Bennett didn't even qualify for the ballot. In this very Republican state, the GOP primary on Tuesday, June 22 will almost certainly determine Utah's next senator. Tim Bridgewater is an entrepreneur with several years of experience in Utah government and politics. Interested in business at an early age, Bridgewater worked for a lobbyist in Washington, D.C., where he later founded a consulting company in the 1990s with Neil Bush, brother of President George W. Bush. His connections in Washington introduced him to Republican politics. Bridgewater has served as deputy of education for former Utah governor Jon Hunstman, Jr., and has unsuccessfully run for Congress twice.
Earlier in the campaign, Bennett hammered Bridgewater for his past support for No Child Left Behind (Bennett had been one of ten senators to oppose it). “[No Child Left Behind] was sold under the premise of giving states more autonomy,” Bridgewater explains in a phone interview. “I’m a big believer that the states need more autonomy…. The current model is fundamentally broken.” As education deputy, however, Bridgewater says he worked to roll back the law’s effects in Utah. “Not only is it a philosophical opposition, but I actually got in and worked hard to fight against the mandates on behalf of my state,” he says.
The rift between Bennett and Bridgewater was apparently not too deep. Last week, Bennett gave Bridgewater a big boost with an endorsement. Though Bennett couldn't make the ballot at the convention, he still has big sway among some GOP primary voters, even in this anti-insider year. Bridgewater is thankful for the endorsement. "Sen. Bennett is one of many endorsements we have here locally," says Bridgewater. "My opponent is seeking support from outsiders."
His opponent Mike Lee, a lawyer whose father was a U.S. solicitor general and president of Brigham Young University, has never run for political office (though the Deseret News notes he ran for student body president at BYU when his father was president). A Mormon like Bridgewater (and most Utahns), Lee earned his law degree at BYU as well and in the late 1990s clerked for a federal appellate court judge named Samuel Alito.
Lee considers himself the true conservative in the race, and he sounds like New Jersey governor Chris Christie when he talks about the need to confront the problems with entitlement programs like Social Security. “Those retiring in, say, the next ten to twenty years need to be told right now we’re gonna have to start making some difficult adjustments,” Lee says. “Including raising the retirement age, including reindexing the payout of benefits based on inflation rather than cost of living.”
His red meat rhetoric helped propel him to the top of the polls, but Lee fell from certain grace two days before the May 8 convention when delegates received an offensive mailer touting his Mormon values in opposition to Bennett’s Washington insider status—the sort of mix of religion and politics that is taboo in Utah. The so-called “temple mailer” lost Lee the support of many delegates and gave Bridgewater a majority on the third ballot.
Lee denied his campaign or his supporters circulated such self-damaging material, and it was soon discovered to have been the work of Tim Stewart, a former aide to Bennett and a registered Washington lobbyist.
Some of Lee's supporters suspect that Bridgewater was behind the mailer, but Lee won’t say whether or not he believes Bridgewater was involved. “I’ve called for an FEC investigation,” Lee says. “I’ve also called upon Mr. Bridgewater and Sen. Bennett to demand to Tim Stewart that he identify the names of his accomplices.”
Bridgewater’s campaign has repeatedly denied its involvement. “I didn’t even know Tim Stewart until almost two weeks after the convention process,” Bridgewater says. “We actually gave his check back once we learned he had done that mailer.”
This hasn’t stopped the accusations, however. Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, who supports Lee, has sent an e-mail to members of his Senate Conservatives Fund PAC connecting Stewart with both Bennett’s and Bridgewater’s campaigns.
Bridgewater says voters don’t welcome Sen. DeMint’s entry into Utah politics. “He's put himself in this campaign in a way that is driving voters away from his endorsed candidate and to my campaign, and so I appreciate that,” Bridgewater says.
“Senator DeMint believes that Tim Bridgewater is a good man and trusts he had nothing to do with this smear against Mike Lee,” says Matt Hoskins, a spokesman for DeMint's Senate Conservatives Fund. “The Senator hopes all the facts will ultimately come out so those responsible are held accountable and so it never happens again.”
On the issues, both Lee and Bridgewater seem to have few differences now. Both speak about reducing government spending and challenging the status quo in Washington, and both have support from local Tea Party groups. But only one will emerge from Tuesday's primary on track to be Utah's next senator.
Michael Warren, a Collegiate Network fellow, is an editorial assistant at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.