Jim Bennett, whose father was defeated by right wingers in a primary tells Moneyish why he’s running for Jason Chaffetz’s former seat and wants to hold Donald Trump accountable
The Tea Party ended his family’s legacy. Now he’s fighting back.
For three generations, Jim Bennett’s family were stalwart Republicans. His grandfather and father represented Utah for a combined 42 years in the United States Senate between them, he ran election campaigns for conservatives and was even a delegate at the 2012 Republican convention. But now, the 49-year-old is running in a by-election for the congressional seat previously held by firebrand Jason Chaffetz for United Utah, the new centrist party he leads.
Bennett’s move away from the GOP began in 2010, when his father’s bid for a fourth term in the Senate ended prematurely at a Republican caucus. Though a conservative, Bob Bennett was out-voted by Tea Party activists in favor of a more fervent right-winger; an early major scalp claimed by the grassroots movement . The senator was an old-school politico who liked earmarks and backroom compromises and was disdained by the Tea Party for his support for immigration reform and Wall Street bailout legislation. “He had a reputation as a conservative but also as someone reasonable,” Bennett tells Moneyish. “But that wasn’t enough.”
The younger Bennett is a conservative too. He thinks Roe v. Wade is unconstitutional, supports free trade and only reluctantly accepts gay marriage as the law of the land. What sealed his departure was Donald Trump, who called some Mexicans rapists and murderers, vowed a ban on Muslim refugees and became the Republican nominee. It’s a position akin to his father’s, who died from pancreatic cancer last year and spent his final months apologizing to Muslims for Trump’s rhetoric.
“Utah was founded by refugees driven from their homes because of what they believed,” says Bennett of the predominantly Mormon state. “Now the party’s trying to turn its back on people around the world. That’s an immoral position.”
Despite his heritage, Bennett didn’t grow up with politics. His grandfather retired from the Senate when he was six and the family moved to Los Angeles. Bennett studied theater at the University of Southern California and hoped to become a Hollywood star. It was only in his 20s that he got his first brush with politics, “licking envelopes” for his father’s successful 1992 Senate campaign, though he went on to run theaters across the country before returning to Utah. The theater skills, he says, have been useful in politics. “Ronald Reagan was the great communicator and spending a lot of time in movies gave him those skills,” he says of the actor-turned-President.
Bennett will need every ounce of Reagan’s nous if he’s to succeed Chaffetz. Only two independents have been elected to the House of Representatives since 1950 and Utah is Republican territory. “I recognize it’s an uphill battle, but David beat Goliath,” says Bennett. He’s helped by Utahns’ reluctance to embrace the President, who won the state last year with just 45.5% of the vote. Mitt Romney, the former Republican nominee who turned around the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics is a leading critic. Evan McMullin, a native of Chaffetz’s former district, ran as an independent conservative against Trump last year and garnered 21.5% of Utah’s vote.
Congratulations John! https://t.co/vhmv7Qoutk
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 16, 2017
If Bennett beats off John Curtis, the Provo mayor who’s the GOP nominee for the third district, he hopes to reclaim his father’s mantle as a deal maker (Though Curtis is a Never Trumper, the President has congratulated him on Twitter). Republicans today, he says, don’t really care about the issues anymore. “The one thing that’s survived Trump and the Tea Party is unbridled rage at the system. We’re mad and want to burn things down,” he says “But the constitution deliberately designed a government that requires compromise.”
That’s why Bennett says he’s consulting with voters before deciding which party he’ll caucus with if elected to the GOP-controlled House. (Independents who don’t caucus with a major party generally don’t get seats on committees, where most legislation is written.) “I don’t want either party to think they can rely on my vote,” he says. “It’s legitimate to caucus with both parties and I’m not making a decision until I understand where the voters are.”
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