Polarized Party Base Ousts Incumbent Utah Sen. Bob Bennett

By Marcia Clemmitt

The polarization of political parties I heard about when I spoke with experts for our “Gridlock in Washington” report last month continues apace.

This past weekend, a Republican Party convention in Utah rejected three-term Sen. Bob Bennett as the GOP nominee for the November election, on the grounds that Bennett isn’t conservative enough.

That event comes as no surprise to political scientists. One big strike against Bennett, in the eyes of party faithful: He’s worked with moderate Democrats on bipartisan initiatives. Even though most political analysts say the majority of American voters prefer middle-of-the-road proposals that contain both Democratic and Republican ideas, increasingly, the most politically active among us reject bipartisan projects out of hand.

“A major reason that Bennett is being challenged in his primary is because he collaborated with Ron Wyden [D-Ore.]” on a bipartisan health-care reform bill, said Sean F. Evans, an associate professor of political science at Union University in Jackson, Tenn. Conservatives had blasted Bennett for pushing the proposal, saying that its “goal of universal coverage was the wrong goal for Republicans on political and substantive grounds,” wrote columnist Reihan Salam in the conservative magazine National Review.

Bennett’s not the only senator in trouble with the party apparatus of his home state for pursuing bipartisan proposals, according to Sean Theriault, an associate professor of government at the University of Texas, Austin.

For example, of South Carolina’s two senators, both Republicans, Jim DeMint staunchly opposes proposals that would mean working in a bipartisan way with Democrats, while Lindsey Graham has frequently reached out to Democrats seeking compromises on issues like climate change, says Theriault. For this reason, while the two men’s actual voting records are quite similar, a local Republican organization in the state “passed a censure resolution against Graham for working with Democrats.”

No Democrats so far appear to have been directly censured by the party apparatus for working on a bipartisan basis. Nevertheless, in recent years Democratic congressional leaders have become more likely than in the past to award leadership positions on public policy to members who fight for more consistently liberal causes, analysts say.

For example, in late 2008, Democratic leaders in Congress stripped Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., of his long-time post as chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee in favor of Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., Evans points out. A fervent champion of the automobile industry so crucial to his home state, Dingell – unlike Waxman – would probably have dragged his feet on or even opposed climate-change and alternative-energy legislation.

Analysts expect more incumbents, on both sides of the aisle, to face strong challenges this year, as local party activists seek out more ideologically pure candidates. If that happens – and most political scientists seem pretty certain that it will – look for Washington to be even more polarized in 2011.