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GOP candidates in the Tea Party crosshairs

The Tea Party movement is taking aim at Republican incumbents, including Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, Sen. Olympia Snow of Maine, and Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts. Will it succeed in unseating them?

June 9, 2011

Sen. Orin Hatch (R) of Utah, waits to speak during a Tea Party town hall meeting at the National Press Club in Washington, Feb. 8, 2011.

Cliff Owen/AP


By Jill Lawrence

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Orrin Hatch is conservative by almost any measure, but these days that’s not enough to shield him from the right. There’s a credible challenger in the wings and a real possibility that the Utah senator could become the first establishment casualty of the 2012 season.

The Tea Party movement first demonstrated its clout last year by knocking off Hatch’s Utah colleague, Bob Bennett. Now the movement’s activists have served notice that they are displeased with several big-name Republican senators. Hatch, like most of them, is cultivating the grassroots, moving rightward, and hoping to fend off a serious primary challenger.

It’s already too late for that in Indiana, where state treasurer Richard Mourdock is taking on Richard Lugar. And it may be too late for Hatch, who could well face Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a self-described “definite maybe” who will decide after Labor Day whether to run. Others drawing conservative scrutiny and complaints are Olympia Snowe of Maine, Scott Brown of Massachusetts, and Bob Corker of Tennessee.

RELATED: How well do you know the Tea Party? Take the quiz

What all this amounts to is nothing less than a redefinition of conservatism—or, at least, the brand of conservatism acceptable to those who have the power to boot Republicans who have long toed what used to be the party line. The no-longer-acceptable column includes a willingness to negotiate or form partnerships with Democrats, or even to back the aims of the last Republican president.

The GOP establishment is standing behind its incumbents. John Cornyn, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, is holding a fundraiser for Hatch on Monday in New York.

Some of Cornyn’s primary picks—remember Charlie Crist?—didn’t fare so well in 2010. But a wholesale housecleaning of GOP incumbents before the general election looks unlikely for now. One reason is the lesson of 2010, not just for senators trying to preserve their careers but also for the conservative groups deciding where to focus their money and activism.

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