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This time around, Bridgewater is emphasizing the generation gap. “I’m 49, and two-thirds of the country is younger than I am. Then you think, we have a senator who’s nearly 80.”
Bridgewater’s initial campaign push was to visit all 29 counties in the state, where he spoke to potential delegates and tried to work up some affection. For sure, he’s done more party work than other candidates, says Burbank. “It’s the kind of thing delegates reward you for, getting out and raising money for the party. The problem is that he is more in the true conservative mode, and I’m not sure he’s a candidate that there’s a whole lot of excitement about.”
Maybe the reason Bridgewater is so keen to win office is that he thinks of himself as the American dream fulfilled—or nearly fulfilled. After his father walked out, his mother raised him and his brother alone, for a time even depending on welfare. When he was 7 years old, she remarried and moved the family to a West Jordan trailer park.
“We lived in a single 12 [foot wide] by 60 foot long trailer, and by the time I was a [high school] senior, we’d upgraded to a double-wide,” he says. “My stepfather was a mechanic—it seemed like a pretty good childhood to me.”
His friends were diverse: One ended up in prison, and another started flying jets for the Navy. Bridgewater was a big, strong kid who was the first in his family to go to college. Snow College offered him a scholarship to play football, and he attended the junior college in Ephraim for two quarters before going to Venezuela on a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He later earned a degree in finance from Brigham Young University and got a graduate degree in international economics from the University of Utah.“I’ve been really lucky. I had a modestly successful business career, and I’ve been around government politics,” he says.
The career includes a stint at the Export- Import Bank of the United States, where he worked as an international loan officer, and later, he co-founded six companies. Bridgewater calls himself a small-business consultant and investor who has worked in a wide range of industries over his 20-year career. Currently, his company Interlink consults on investments for industries in building materials, automotive components, software, education curriculum and energy development.
He started a company, Ignite Learning, in 1999 to deliver multimedia curriculum to middle-schoolers, and that interest in education caught the attention of former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., who tapped him as his education adviser.
“One of the things I’m passionate about in education is how to improve public education and the challenge with charter schools. We tried to close the achievement gap, and I was the point person to take on No Child Left Behind,” Bridgewater says.
Bridgewater disdains the idea that government can solve the problems of education. “I think federal mandates are ineffective,” he says. According to the Department of Education, the federal government contributes less than 8 percent of funding for elementary and secondary education, yet the feds try to mandate every aspect of education, which makes Bridgewater bristle.
Bridgewater is, in every way, a conservative. “People have to suffer the consequences of their mistakes, and the system will heal itself,” he says.
Bridgewater served on the board of conservative think tank the Sutherland Institute, is staunchly pro-life, and would support and defend the definition of marriage as between a man and a woman.
Along with his congressional runs, he has plenty of political experience within the Republican Party. He worked on election committees for George W. Bush in both 2000 and 2004, and was the Western states coordinator for Arizona Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign, working closely with Sarah Palin. He even briefly considered the race for the state GOP chair in 2009—which was eventually won by Hansen—before deciding instead to run against Bennett.
But behind-the-scenes political work and showing conservative credentials may not be enough in this race. Bridgewater worries that the Bennett opponents are going to try to out-conservative one another, and at this point, it does seem like a race for conservative conscience.
The Los Angeles Times has even dubbed the race an “improbable battleground” in the GOP’s civil war. Since the equally improbable victory of Chaffetz over then-Rep. Chris Cannon, GOP incumbents seem more vulnerable than ever.
There’s a sense that Bennett has the exact same problem as Cannon—that Utahns were never convinced he was conservative enough for them, says the U’s Burbank. “Chaffetz took advantage of that, and he sort of morphed into being the more conservative candidate.”
But Chaffetz also had a screamer of a focus issue: immigration. Not so with Bennett, who has drawn ire from conservatives for his support of more immediate issues, such as the 2008 bailout package.
“The [bank] bailout is one thing,” Burbank says. “There’s a sense that it should never have happened, and we should punish the incumbents. Health care is another issue, but it still remains to be seen what happens there.”
Meanwhile, Mike Lee, more academic but certainly more expressive than others in the pack, is emerging as the challenger to beat in the state Republican nominating convention on May 8, 2010. As the son of former BYU president and former U.S. Solicitor General Rex Lee, he has a bit of that regal connection that Bennett, whose father was also a U.S. senator, possesses.
Helping to generate buzz for Mike Lee are conservative bloggers, many of whom are humming with excitement about him. “There’s a lot of talk about Mike Lee,” says Burbank. But discussions tend to be almost all positive during the testing stage, he says. Once Lee officially announces, the tide will likely change.
Lee, a lawyer who does litigation on the appeals level, has also been working the delegates, but in a different way than Bridgwater, focusing his discussions on constitutional issues—issues that can be especially heady. According to the Website of his legal firm, Howrey, “Mr. Lee has developed a unique type of government-relations practice—one that draws upon his expertise in constitutional law and statutory construction, and is devoted to helping businesses formulate comprehensive legal and political strategies to hasten the resolution of regulatory and litigation-related threats to their success.”
Lee clerked for District Court Judge Dee Benson and spent a year clerking for Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito before coming back to Utah in 2007. Now, he’s holding a series of cottage meetings around the state, talking about the growing threats to the Constitution.
Not surprisingly, he begins by telling the crowd that Bennett is a good man, but emphasizes that it’s time to “release” him with a vote of thanks. Right now, government is too big, spends too much money, costs too much and regulates too much.
Lee wouldn’t comment on his candidacy, but he’s got a constituency of followers within the party, unlike Bridgewater. In an attempt to separate him from the other conservative challengers, his supporters insist that Lee’s not a “right-wing nut who wants to take us back to 1776.” But he is a stickler for the Constitution.
And Lee, by virtue of his birthright and his legal experience, has many politically connected friends, such as Rep. Craig Frank, R-Pleasant Grove, who has blogged about Lee and how great it is that Lee is back in Utah.
Bridgewater knows that his lack of political connections was his Achilles’ heel during previous campaigns, but those were just warm-ups. “I’m better now that I know what I’m doing,” Bridgewater says. “I won in the people and policy arenas, but I didn’t win the primary because I was beaten on process.”
In other words, he didn’t really know the secret handshake. Bridgewater says, when he ran for Congress, he hadn’t been back in Utah long enough to build relationships within the party. Since then, he’s been trying to make friends. Still, he’s not getting any return phone calls from those whose endorsements he could use, such as Shurtleff.