These are strange, uncertain times for veteran Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch. The courtly GOP lawmaker has pretty much owned his seat since his first election in 1976, but with the jarring ascendancy of the Tea Party in his home state, Hatch suddenly is in the fight of his political life.
His longevity and success in Washington—wheeling and dealing with the likes of the late liberal icon, Sen. Edward Kennedy —once were considered virtues by voters, but now are Hatch’s biggest political liabilities. Another longtime Republican Utah senator, Robert Bennett, was dumped by a state party hijacked by the Tea Party last year, and Hatch has to be concerned he may be next.
The true believers, especially some hard-charging Tea Party members, scorn Hatch’s record of bipartisanship as well as some of his votes—especially his support for the Bush administration’s Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP) enacted October 3, 2008, which they view as a bank bailout that eviscerates the free market. Many also have little use for long-term incumbents.
“Personally, I feel like he needs to go—he’s been there so long,” said Utah Tea Party activist Jacqueline Smith, who represents a group called the STAR Forum, which stands for Save The American Republic. “He did vote for Bush TARP. He voted the party line instead of fiscal responsibility.”
At bottom, the 77-year-old Hatch’s race is a test of the continuing clout of Tea Party activists against the skills of a wily, battled-scarred veteran of Washington policy wars. In order to survive in what is sure to be a bitterly-fought political contest, Hatch must win over enough members of the Tea Party while hanging on to his long-time supporters. Two-term Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah is eyeing Hatch’s Senate seat and is likely to run.
Hatch has assiduously reached out to activists, but he has a way to go before making the sale. “You don’t get any more establishment than Orrin Hatch,” Becky Pirente, another Tea Party activist, told The Fiscal Times. “He has got to take responsibility for the out-of-control government that he helped to create….If we need to pull back from the edge of the cliff in this nation, then we have to make a change.”
But Hatch insisted in an interview with The Fiscal Times that his record speaks for itself—and it shows that he is a principled conservative. “I don’t have just a one or two-year record as a conservative. I have a 35-year record. Anybody can see it.”
of inexperience, just take a look at
the current occupant of the Oval Office.”
As he makes his case, Hatch doesn’t hesitate to note that he’s in line to be chairman of the tax-writing Senate Finance Committee in 2013 if he wins and the Republicans retake the Senate, as some prognosticators see as a strong possibility given that Democrats must defend 23 of the 33 seats on the ballot.
Given that chance to deliver for his constituents from such a powerful perch, the lawmaker is confounded by some critics in Utah who are unimpressed that their senior senator could take the reins of such a powerful panel.
“I had one of them say, at a town hall meeting, `Seniority doesn’t count.’“ Hatch said. “I said, `Well, is that right? Tell that to the people who were on Captain Sullenberger’s plane that landed in the Hudson,” referring to Capt. Chesley Sullenberg, who safely glided a stricken US Airways jet onto the Hudson River in 2009. ‘ If it hadn’t been for experience they would all be dead…. I’ll put it this way—if you want to see the results of inexperience, just take a look at the current occupant of the Oval Office.”
Utah has been one of the most Republican states since the 1980s, which means that winning the party’s nomination is tantamount to election. Bennett, an 18-year Senate incumbent, was defeated at the Tea Party-dominated GOP convention.
GOP power brokers in Washington still feel the reverberations from Bennett’s experience. “All we need to do is see what happened to Bob Bennett-- but I feel very good about senator Hatch,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Tex., who heads the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Bennett said in an interview that if the same atmospherics—and delegates—at the convention last year return to next year’s gathering, the six-term senator will likely not survive.
were walking around with hand-made
signs that said, `Hatch is Next.’”
“If the political atmosphere is the same in 2012 as it was for me in 2010, he [Hatch] will lose in convention,” Bennett told The Fiscal Times. He noted that a new set of delegates will be chosen next year and, added, “If they are different with a different mindset he could survive. But if they are the same delegates as in 2010, then he’ll lose. At my convention in 2010, people were walking around with hand-made signs that said, `Hatch is Next.’”