WASHINGTON — After toppling three-term Republican Sen. Robert F. Bennett in Utah, tea party activists and other conservative critics shifted their sights Sunday to a mid-May primary in Kentucky, their next big challenge to a political establishment they have vowed to upend.
Bennett, 76, left the door open to a write-in campaign after losing his bid for renomination, raising the possibility of an unpredictable three-way race that could yet extend his career.
But within minutes of Bennett's defeat, the chairman of the Republican senatorial campaign committee, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, announced the organization will support the winner of a June 22 primary between businessman Tim Bridgewater and attorney Mike Lee.
Republicans are heavily favored to hold the seat in the fall in a state that hasn't elected a Democratic senator in more than three decades.
In his home state, Republicans said Bennett's defeat raised questions about the political future of Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, also a conservative, who may face a challenge from GOP Rep. Jason Chaffetz in 2012.
Hatch has worked to protect his conservative flank carefully in the past year. His opposition to Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor was the first time in a career of more than 30 years that he voted against a high-court nominee, and he pulled out of last year's bipartisan talks on health care legislation shortly after they began.
Nationally, the events at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City marked a key moment in the struggle roiling Republicans, the demise of a veteran conservative, influential in the party's inner councils in the Senate, tossed out in large measure because he voted for the financial bailout legislation of 2008.
"The whole reason I started the tea party (in Utah) was Sen. Bennett. He was the next one up for election," said David Kirkham, who added that his opposition developed after the veteran lawmaker voted for the bailout President George W. Bush sought in late 2008.
Other critics said they were unhappy that Bennett had co-sponsored bipartisan legislation that would have required individuals to purchase health insurance, and noted he had once pledged to serve only two terms.
Whatever the grievances, a Salt Lake Tribune poll late last month found that about two-thirds of the delegates identified themselves as supporters of the tea party. About the same number said the group would help the Republicans at the polls this fall.
In addition, the Club for Growth, which supports candidates espousing conservative economic policies, spent nearly $200,000 to defeat Bennett. Freedom Works, which has ties to the loosely organized tea party groups, dispatched staff to the state.
In contrast to Utah, where about 3,500 party activists determined which candidates would qualify for the ballot, the May 18 contest in Kentucky is a traditional primary election, open to all registered Republicans.
There, Secretary of State Trey Grayson has the support of Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., Rep. Hal Rogers, a veteran lawmaker and dozens of local political leaders.
"I rarely endorse in primaries, but these are critical times," McConnell said in a television ad that began airing in rent days. "President Obama's spending threatens to destroy more jobs. ... We need Trey's conservative leadership to help turn back the Obama agenda."
Grayson's challenger, Rand Paul, the son of former presidential candidate Ron Paul of Texas, has the backing of tea party activists, as well as former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, former GOP presidential candidate Steve Forbes and – after a switch last week – evangelical leader James Dobson.
Additionally, South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint has endorsed Paul as part of an attempt to push the party rightward, calling him "a true conservative who will stand up to the Washington establishment."
"Rand is exactly the kind of leader Americans are looking for right now," DeMint said. "He's not a career politician and he's got the guts to stand up to the massive spending, bailouts and debt that are being forced on us in Washington."
While some public polls show Paul with a healthy lead, private surveys show a much closer race with more than two weeks remaining.
Earlier contests have produced mixed results for the insurgents.
Tea party activists are credited with helping one-time longshot Marco Rubio to a commanding position in the race for the Republican nomination for a Senate seat in Florida.
Gov. Charlie Crist, who began the campaign as the favorite, quit the party and is now running as an independent in an unpredictable three-way race.
Last week, tea party activists failed to defeat a single incumbent in primaries in three states. In Indiana, they and DeMint backed a losing rival to former Indiana Sen. Dan Coats, who is trying to mount a comeback.
DeMint was officially neutral in Utah. But he made no attempt to come to Bennett's aid, and quickly endorsed Lee in a video shown to the convention delegates later in the day.