Two years ago, a conservative US senator in conservative Utah – three-term incumbent Bob Bennett – got the boot at the Republican state nominating convention, losing to tea party favorite Mike Lee at a time when ever having shown any signs of legislative compromise was a mark of wobbly disloyalty to the conservative cause.
This time around, Utah’s other US senator – six-term incumbent Orrin Hatch – got the same kind of scare. State Senator Dan Liljenquist – another tea party favorite – forced Hatch into a primary election to be held this Tuesday, Hatch’s first primary challenge since he began his political career in 1976.
It seems unlikely.
Hatch has spent some $10 million on his re-election bid (more than 10 times his opponent). He agreed to only one radio debate with Mr. Liljenquist who – 40 years younger than Hatch – is a literal as well as figurative fresh face and might have been seen as such on TV. He emphasizes his conservative credentials (a 90 percent lifetime rating by the American Conservative Union), and he doesn’t mention his friendly relationship with the late Sen. Ted Kennedy or the legislation they worked on together.
Still, tea party activists and organizations have Hatch in their political gunsights.
When Liljenquist announced his candidacy in January, Matt Kibbe, president of tea party powerhouse FreedomWorks, had this to say: “Senator Orrin Hatch is a 36-year incumbent who has consistently abandoned limited government principles, authored legislation with liberal Democrats, and voted to expand the size of the federal government.”
“Between his vote to create the Department of Education in 1979, to his vote for the TARP bailout in 2008, Hatch has consistently voted to expand government beyond its Constitutional limitations,” Kibbe said. “At the end of the day, our Utah activists have been asking us: Why settle for an Orrin Hatch, when you can have another Mike Lee?”
That kind of thing rankles Hatch, who calls FreedomWorks “the sleaziest bunch I’ve ever seen in my life.” That was at the lone pre-primary debate 10 days ago.
Hatch plays up his experience and seniority, which Liljenquist says is the problem.
“Do you consider yourself responsible in any way for the national debt that has exploded in your time in Washington?” he asked Hatch during their radio encounter.
“That is fiscal child abuse and that’s what’s happened in this Congress under your watch as you’ve voted over and over to raise the debt ceiling,” Liljenquist said. “That is a tax increase, that you’ve deferred on a whole generation of Americans.”
The normally unflappable Hatch flapped at that. “Apparently I’m responsible for everything that’s wrong in the federal government,” he said. “That’s total BS and everybody knows it.”
Going into Tuesday’s primary election, Hatch appears to have the clear advantage despite Liljenquist’s and the tea party’s efforts. He’s way ahead in the polls – 60-32 percent, according to a new Deseret News/KSL-TV poll. And he has the endorsement of presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and – perhaps even more valuable – the blessing of Sarah Palin.
“Republican voters aren't quite ready to turn the old war horse out to pasture,” Republican political consultant and lobbyist LaVarr Webb told the Deseret News in Salt Lake City. “A Hatch win means that it's safe, once again, to be a mainstream Republican in Utah.”
Still, one thing is certain, Wall Street Journal editorial board member Steven Moore wrote the other day: “Every incumbent Republican senator will be watching Utah with fear and trepidation on Tuesday. Elections like this keep Republicans from straying too far away from the limited-government principles that GOP voters are demanding.”