Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah saw a home-state colleague become the tea party's first victim last year when conservative insurgents denied veteran Sen. Robert Bennett the GOP nomination. Hatch has gone all out to avoid the same fate -- and there are signs his strategy may be working.
At the end of a week that saw the six-term Republican show up, uninvited, to a tea party town hall and then make his case to a tea party-packed crowd at the Conservative Political Action Conference, spokesmen for two leading tea party groups were sounding less than militant about the prospects of challenging Hatch’s reelection bid next year.
Hatch’s outreach “will be one step in a long process for reelection, but it’s a good step,” said Levi Russell, spokesperson for Tea Party Express.
Adam Brandon, a spokesman for the tea party-affiliated FreedomWorks, sounded similarly half-hearted. “At the end of the day, when you take on a sitting senator, it’s very challenging,” he said, adding that his organization is getting mixed signals from activists in Utah.
“We take our cues from the guys on the ground, and at this point, some say, ‘Hell yeah, we’re going to move forward and challenge him,’ and some say ‘Hatch has really reached out to us,’ which Bennett never did.”
Adding to Hatch’s case: The perfect score he landed last week in the American Conservative Union’s 2010 ratings.
Hatch isn’t in the clear yet, however. He has drawn a torrent of criticism for voting for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, which bailed out Wall Street, and the expansion of SCHIP, which extends health insurance to minors. Also raising some right-wing hackles: Hatch’s past sponsorship of the DREAM Act, which would give a chance at citizenship to illegal immigrants whose parents brought them to the United States as children.
Tea Party Express support for the senator is “far from sewn up,” warned Russell. Though Sal Russo, a Tea Party Express consultant, has hinted that the group will not pose a challenge to Hatch, Russell offered a clarification: “I think Sal was vouching for his character -- he’s a good man and conservative at heart. So we wouldn’t attack him like we attacked some of our worst offenders, like [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid, but if there’s a candidate that’s 5 percent more conservative than him, we’d probably back that guy.”
FreedomWorks’ Brandon agreed that conservatives remain suspicious of Hatch.
“Hatch scores very, very low on our scorecard,” Brandon said. “And this weekend [at CPAC], he talked about a balanced budget, which is cool and all that, but he’s one of the guys who put through SCHIP; he apologized for TARP, but it’s a little late in the game.”
Sen. Mike Lee, Hatch’s new Utah Republican colleague and a tea party favorite, refused to endorse the senior senator’s reelection last week.
That didn’t deter Hatch’s turn-the-other-cheek strategy, however. On the same day that Lee issued his ringing non-endorsement, Hatch shared a stage with him at CPAC and joined the crowd in applauding his tea party-made colleague, adding: “Isn’t he great?”
This article appears in the February 14, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.