No one who has followed the rise of the Tea Party movement in the American West can wonder at the fall of incumbent Republican Senator Bob Bennett last Saturday at the Utah Republican party convention. The Tea Party has major traction among conservative Mormons who believe in the divine origins of the U.S. Constitution, the virtues of “free market” capitalism, the immorality of socialism and who revere Mormon Tea Party heroes like Mormon media heavyweight Glenn Beck and Mormon anti-communist writer Cleon Skousen (1913 – 2006).
What is startling about Bennett’s ouster is that it may mark a break in the Utah Mormon tradition of electing to political office older, wealthy Mormon men with deep social, business, and familial connections to the institutional leadership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Utah Mormon culture has a deeply entrenched tradition of selecting political leaders who resemble the most important figures in the highly centralized institutional leadership of the Mormon Church: well-to-do men in their sixties, seventies, and eighties who descend from historic, multi-generational, well-connected Mormon families.
Senator Bob Bennett, Utah’s 76-year-old “junior senator,” is the son of Senator Wallace F. Bennett (1898 – 1993), the grandson of Mormon Church president Heber J. Grant (1856 – 1945), and a descendent of the storied Wells-Bennett-Grant family line that includes Mormon apostles, governors, legislators, and mayors. His wife, Joyce McKay, is a granddaughter of Mormon Church president David O. McKay (1873 – 1970).
Not even a 2009 book defending the Book of Mormon published by LDS Church-owned Deseret Book company nor an endorsement from Mitt Romney, another wealthy Mormon with a deep and storied Mormon pedigree, could save Bennett.
Tim Bridgewater, a Minuteman-endorsed 49-year-old businessman, former McCain presidential campaign operative, and Utah Mormon from decidedly more humble Mormon roots, won the second round of Saturday’s Republican Primaries. Attorney and former Samuel Alito law clerk Michael S. Lee, 38, son of former U.S. Solicitor General and Brigham Young University President Rex E. Lee and a relative to the storied political Mormon Udall family, placed second.
In perhaps another sign that the Tea Party has the power to unsettle the Mormon political elite, Bridgewater led Lee in a third round of balloting by a hefty margin of 57% – 42%. Utah Republican voters will decide the primary contest at the ballot box on June 22.