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Utah GOP convention rejects incumbent Sen. Robert Bennett

By Kevin Bohn, CNN
Sen. Robert Bennett, seeking a fourth term, placed third in a second round of voting at Saturday's convention
Sen. Robert Bennett, seeking a fourth term, placed third in a second round of voting at Saturday's convention
  • NEW: Neither of top two candidates get 60 percent in third vote, will face off in a primary
  • Sen. Robert Bennett has been eliminated from running for re-election as a Republican
  • Three-term senator is defeated in second vote at a Utah GOP convention
  • "This campaign has been an uphill battle," Bennett says in a statement

Salt Lake City, Utah (CNN) -- Facing significant anger aimed at Washington and at some of his past votes, Utah Sen. Robert Bennett was eliminated Saturday from seeking re-election as a Republican, becoming the first incumbent to fall victim to the growing anti-Washington mood ahead of the 2010 midterm elections.

Bennett came in third in a second round of balloting at the state party convention behind more conservative candidates Tim Bridgewater and Mike Lee. In a final round of voting, neither Lee nor Bridgewater won 60 percent of the vote needed to win the nomination. They will now face each other in a primary election June 22.

Bridgewater garnered 37.42 percent of the vote while Lee got 35.99 percent. Bennett, who was seeking a fourth term, was eliminated with 26.59 percent of the vote.

In a statement issued after the voting, Bennett thanked his family and staff for their support.

"This campaign has been an uphill battle," the statement said. "I have always tried to serve Utah and our country the best way I can. It has been the honor of my life to represent the great people of Utah for these past 18 years."

When asked earlier what it was like to deal with the intense criticism of the past few months, he told reporters, "Obviously I prefer not to [have]" experienced the backlash, but said he has "done the best to soldier on."

Acknowledging the anger, frustration and a desire for change expressed by many of the delegates, the mild-mannered Bennett told the crowd in an earlier speech, "I hear you when you say you want a fighter who will reflect that passion, telling the world that Utahans love their country and are deeply concerned about its future."

Previous polls showed Bennett was facing the fight of his political life, lagging behind at least one of the other GOP candidates. As a result, Bennett had mounted an effort in recent weeks to increase his support. His campaign launched a television ad touting how much help Bennett as a Senate veteran can bring to the state vs. what a freshman could do -- one of the major themes he emphasized to the delegates on Saturday although many told CNN they thought it was time for a change.

Bennett's elimination from the ballot likely will send shock waves throughout the political community with more incumbents worried they will also become the victims of the anti-Washington, anti-incumbency fervor that is being fueled at least in part by the Tea Party movement.

Video: GOP Senator defeated

While Bennett had won the support of several conservative organizations and has received negative ratings from liberal groups, some of Bennett's critics focused on his vote for the 2008 financial bailout, known as TARP.

"I don't think it's a matter of conservative. I think it's a matter of fiscal or financial responsibility, what the Tea Party people are about and the vote for TARP and the vote for the bailout was, in our opinion, pretty fiscally irresponsible and that's what's raised the ire of most people," David Kirkham, a Tea Party activist, told CNN in an interview.

Kirkham, a businessman who builds and restores sports cars, was so upset about the bailout issue that he was motivated to form the Utah Tea Party chapter last year.

"That one vote was pretty toxic," he said. "That one vote affected a lot of things, changed the rules of the game. President Bush said that where we have to abandon free market principles to save the free market and fundamentally, we just don't agree. There's just no way."

Bennett told CNN in an interview earlier this week that he had no regrets over that vote.

"I do not because we were facing a very genuine crisis," he said. "And I would not want my career to be marked with shirking my responsibility to prevent that crisis from happening since the financial system was at such risk."

He has also come under criticism for working with Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, last year on a health care overhaul proposal, his pursuit of earmarks, and his votes supporting an increase in the national debt.