Hatch Courts Tea Party to Boost Election Chances
Policy + Politics

Hatch Courts Tea Party to Boost Election Chances

Alex Wong/Getty Images

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.”

“If you want to see the results
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.

“At my convention in 2010, people
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.’”

University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank agreed that Hatch’s biggest challenge is the unusual nature of take-no-prisoner conservative activists who have wielded power in the state in recent years. “Republican delegates from Utah are a very conservative group, a very activist group, and, essentially, they are unhappy with everybody all the time. There are a few conservatives they like, but once they get into office, they are never conservative enough.”

Hatch made clear that his dukes are up. He is taking nothing for granted. Though he didn’t say it explicitly, the veteran lawmaker signaled he is no Bob Bennett, who some felt had not been aggressive enough. “I’m the wrong guy to get in a fight with,” he said. “I have never been given anything in my life. I’ve earned everything I have ever had. ”  

Hatch was born in Pittsburgh, where his father was a metal lather. The family lost their home during the Depression, and lived for a while in a shelter made of salvaged wood and metal. Hatch worked his way through Brigham Young University as a janitor and metal lather. He went on to get a law degree from the University of Pittsburgh, and practiced law in Pittsburgh. He and his young family later moved to Salt Lake City, where he entered politics. In 1976, he ran for the Senate and unseated a three-term Democrat, helped in part by an endorsement from Ronald Reagan.

Hatch’s Senate record reflects his strong conservative instincts with an equally strong willingness to forge agreements with allies on the other side of the aisle.  He first gained attention in a Democratic Senate by successfully filibustering the AFL-CIO’s labor law bill, and later, on the Judiciary Committee,  he fought abortion rights legislation and strongly defended Supreme court nominees Robert Bork and ClarenceThomas.

But Hatch also took some surprising positions:  in 1997 he joined Kennedy in sponsoring a $24 billion program to get states to provide health insurance for children of low-income working parents who don’t qualify for Medicaid.  And despite his opposition to abortion, he supported embryonic-stem cell research. In 2006. Hatch and Democratic Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois joined forces to pass a measure that required reporting to the Food and drug Administration  bad side effects of dietary supplements and over-the-counter drugs.

Some of his votes are now attracting unfavorable reviews by Chaffetz and the Tea Party. He supported TARP at the height of the financial crisis, the Obama’s first economic stimulus package, Bush’s Medicare prescription drug program, and expansion of AmericCorps.  He also voted repeatedly over the years to raise the federal debt ceiling;

As the Tea Party surged in importance in Utah politics, Hatch aggressively sought out some of the activists to try to establish rapport. For example, Hatch's office called Jacqueline Smith last year to ask for a town hall meeting near Park City to air differences. Hatch also has maintained contact with David Kirkham, the founder of the Utah Tea Party.

In contrast to Bennett, Hatch’s tenacity has made an impression on some in the Tea Party, who praise the lawmaker for listening to their concerns.  “Senator Bennett didn’t want to work with us—he dismissed us at his own peril,” said Kirkham in an interview. “Senator Hatch reached out—in early 2009—before Senator Bennett’s office [did] and four years out from Senator Hatch’s election.”

Kirkham also noted that Hatch has compiled “a good record in the last four years—there’s not a lot to complain about.”  But he quickly added, “in the previous 32 years, there’s a lot to complain about.”  
Despite Hatch’s full court press, he has not won the endorsement of last year’s winner in the Senate contest

Republican Mike Lee, a tea party favorite—who has pointedly stayed out of the race this year. A spokesman for Lee said that the senator’s decision reflects his “personal preference not to get involved in the Utah Senate race.”

Chaffetz, one of Lee’s friends, said in an interview that he is “definitely leaning” to jumping into the race against Hatch. The youthful 44-year-old House member is quick to remind folks of a line that the veteran senator used back in 1976 when he upset three-term Democratic incumbent Frank Moss.

“He said repeatedly, `What do you call a senator who has been in the Senate for 18 years? You call him home,’” Chaffetz said.

Some critics say that Hatch is trying to inoculate himself by apologizing for his vote on TARP and taking stances that are more likely to appeal to tough-minded conservatives. For example, for the first time in his career, Hatch, former chairman of the Judiciary Committee, opposed a Supreme Court nominee when he voted against Sonia Sotomayor in 2009 and then followed up by giving thumbs down to President Obama’s second Supreme Court nominee, Elena Kagan, even though he had backed her nomination to be solicitor general.

“It is a common perception among folks here in the state that he has been maneuvering to the right, shifting to the right as he knows Election Day is coming,” said University of Utah political science professor Tim Chambless. His vote ratings in National Journal show a move from the 29th most conservative senator in 2008, 30th in 2009 to 17th last year.

Hatch says he has not shifted, but acknowledged he’d like a do-over on the TARP vote—even as he stresses it was necessary to avoid an economic free fall. “I wouldn’t vote for it again. But…if it had taken my vote to pass it I would have done it because we would have been in a depression if we didn’t do anything….I really feel badly about the way it was implemented.”

Related Links:
Debt Limit Deal: Next Hurdle for the Tea Party (The Fiscal Times)
Tea Party: ‘Balance the Damn Budget Already’ (The Fiscal Times)