Sen. Orrin Hatch survives tea party primary challenge: how he did it

Orrin Hatch, a six-term veteran of the US Senate, fought off a tea party-backed challenge in Utah’s Republican primary Tuesday. His tactics could serve as a lesson for other GOP incumbents.

Colin E. Braley/AP
US Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah greets family members Tuesday outside his campaign headquarters in Salt Lake City. Hatch defeated tea party-backed former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist in the Republican primary election.

Veteran US Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah not only won likely reelection this week, the self-described “tough old bird” survived a tea party assault of the type that’s sent other Republican veterans packing in recent years.

Unlike long-time Sens. Richard Lugar of Indiana and Bob Bennett, a fellow Utahn, Senator Hatch had the strategy and the resources to defeat his tea party-backed challenger. In this case, that was former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist, who had forced Hatch into a primary runoff election for the first time in the six-term incumbent’s US Senate tenure.

Taking to heart the lessons of former Senator Bennett’s defeat two years ago, Hatch did three things that helped him survive in conservative Utah – lessons that likely will be heeded by others in office labeled “RINO” (Republican in Name Only) by tea partiers looking to challenge voting records and what are seen as the sins of incumbency:

• Hatch polished his conservative credentials, boosting his lifetime American Conservative Union rating of 89 percent to 100 percent in 2010 and 2011, downplaying his reputation for working with Democrats (including the late Sen. Edward Kennedy) while emphasizing what tea party critics called a new-found concern with federal debt and deficits.

• He amassed a huge campaign warchest, spending some $10 million on his reelection bid – 10 times what Mr. Liljenquist was able to collect and spend.

• And he avoided television debates with his much younger Republican opponent, which limited their face-to-face encounters to a single radio debate.

Mr. Liljenquist had the backing of tea party powerhouse FreedomWorks for America, which had spent some $900,000 trying to defeat Hatch, and his reputation for having taken on public employee unions resonated with many conservatives. His main line of attack was that Hatch was guilty of “fiscal child abuse” against future generations by failing as a senior Republican to tackle the national debt.

Hatch denied the charge, and he didn’t hesitate to brand FreedomWorks as out-of-staters and “the sleaziest bunch I’ve ever seen in my life.” Rather than play down his 36 years in Washington, he touted his seniority, including his likely chairmanship of the powerful Finance Committee if Republicans gain control of the Senate.

It helped greatly that he had the early and enthusiastic backing of fellow-Mormon Mitt Romney, who is very popular in the adopted home state where Romney rescued the scandal-plagued 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Perhaps even more valuable among tea partiers, Hatch won the endorsement of Sarah Palin, who called him "part of the one percent of national politicians who I think should be reelected."

In November, Hatch will face Democratic challenger Scott Howell, a former state senator and IBM executive. A poll conducted for the Deseret News and KSL-TV last week shows Hatch leading Howell 63 percent to 29 percent.

Hatch’s experience demonstrates the power incumbency can hold. But it also shows Republican office-holders – conservative though they might be – that the hot breath of the tea party movement needs to be heeded.

“People with eyes to see and ears to hear, I don’t know how they could miss that message,” Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, told the Washington Post. “Because we’ve seen both people who’ve done it well and people who have not done it as well, with obvious differences in outcomes.”

The tea party may have lost the vote in Utah this week. But in its response to the election, FreedomWorks ticked off the way Hatch had changed his tune on what it considers key issues.

“Thanks to a stalwart community of engaged grassroots activists, Senator Hatch was forced to start talking the tea party language and making the right votes,” FreedomWorks for America national political director Russ Walker said in a statement.

“In 2007, the FreedomWorks scorecard rated Hatch’s voting record at a dismal 25 percent, compared to his vastly improved rating of 88 percent in 2011,” Walker said. “The clear conclusion is that conservative grassroots activists and the Dan Liljenquist campaign forced Senator Hatch to support free-market, limited-government economic policy…. This primary was a clash of principles, and it’s clear from Senator Hatch’s rediscovered conservative rhetoric that the ideas of the tea party came out on top.”

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