Delegates at Utah’s Republican convention just denied three-term Sen. Bob Bennett the opportunity for re-election. Bennett finished third in voting on the second ballot for the Republican nominees for Senate at the convention, and only the top two will move on to the third round and have the opportunity to win. Candidates Mike Lee (a former clerk for Sam Alito) and Tim Bridgewater (a businessman and perennial candidate) will now vie for the nomination, and Bennett could only challenge them as a write-in, which he declined (he said he would support the GOP nominee).

Utah has an unusual nominating process for their Senate seats. Caucuses choose 3,500 delegates for the state convention, and those delegates then get to decide who becomes the nominee of the party. If nobody reaches 60% on the final ballot, then a primary election makes the final choice between the last two candidates. That was the likely outcome tonight.

But Bennett finished third on the first ballot, moving into the second round with Lee and Bridgewater. From there, he only managed 26% of the vote on the second ballot and was eliminated.

This was actually the expected outcome. Conservative activists, who dominate the roster of delegates, were angry with Bennett over his vote for TARP, and his sponsorship of the Wyden-Bennett health care bill. Given that Wyden-Bennett never got the time of day in Washington, it’s simply amazing that this was held against Bennett, who has one of the most conservative voting records there is.

I agree with Nate Silver that political types will make plenty more of this than meets the eye. If all races were decided by small gatherings of activists the composition of our legislatures will look quite different. Indeed, Bennett would have been favored, by some accounts, in a primary opened up to the voters, though that could be a function of name ID.

But while in the short term, the now lame-duck Bennett might be freed up for a vote with Democrats here or there, over the long haul Republicans will now be even more frightened that, if they don’t move hard to the right, they will suffer the same fate. Illogical as that may sound, the Bennett ejection holds a powerful message that the far right of the GOP has taken over.

UPDATE: The Salt Lake Tribune reports that this is the first time Utah has denied a sitting Senator the nomination of their party since 1940, when Sen. William King lost his party’s nomination over his opposition to the New Deal.

UPDATE II: Tim Bridgewater took 57% of the vote on the third ballot, not enough to avoid a primary against Mike Lee. So there will be a primary June 22. Meanwhile Jim Matheson, the Democratic Representative from UT-03, did not get the needed 60% of the vote to win the nomination of his party, so he’ll face a June 22 primary as well.