Two vulnerable senators, two opposite paths on tea party

Republican Sens. Richard Lugar of Indiana and Orrin Hatch of Utah could face tea party challenges in their 2012 primaries. But while Hatch is embracing the tea party, Lugar is fighting it.

Cliff Owen/AP
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah waits to speak during a Tea Party Express town hall meeting at the National Press Club in Washington Tuesday.
Tom Strickland/AP/File
Pat Miller of Fort Wayne, Ind., speaks Jan. 22 at a meeting of tea party activists in a church near Sharpsville, Ind., to discuss a candidate to unseat Sen. Richard Lugar (R) in 2012.

This is a tale of two senior senators, both Republican, both up for reelection in 2012, both eager to win. And their approaches to the tea party couldn’t be more different.

Six-term Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah is wooing the populist conservative movement. At a Tea Party Express town hall Tuesday night at the National Press Club, Senator Hatch said that he’s “very impressed” by the role the tea party is playing in helping “America to take back America.”

Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana, also in his sixth term, is pushing back hard, telling the tea party: “get real.” He made the comment Monday to News Channel 15 in Fort Wayne, Ind., specifically about tea partyers’ opposition to the new START arms control treaty with Russia, which Senator Lugar championed. But that comment could summarize his overall attitude toward the tea party.

Lugar has not changed his eclectic voting habits since the movement burst on the scene nearly two years ago. Though a reliable GOP vote on many issues, he voted in favor of confirmation for both of President Obama’s Supreme Court nominees. He opposes the ban on earmarks. He supports the DREAM Act, which would establish a path to citizenship for some young undocumented immigrants.

Hatch, on the other hand, no longer supports the DREAM Act and has backed off requests for earmarks, those little nuggets of spending for home-state projects that legislators used to brag about. He opposed the new START treaty.

Still, Hatch may have a harder time reaching the general election than Lugar, analysts say. The nomination process for the Utah Republican Party begins with a party convention, and if Hatch does not receive at least 40 percent of the vote there, his name won’t appear on the GOP primary ballot. That’s how longtime Utah Sen. Bob Bennett (R) lost his seat last year, a fate that Hatch wants to avoid. Utah’s new junior senator, Mike Lee (R), is one of three members of the Senate’s new Tea Party Caucus – a club that Hatch has not joined. Yet.

Hatch’s born-again, down-the-line conservatism may help him come convention time, but there are no guarantees. His history of collaboration with Democrats – particularly the Senate’s late liberal lion, Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts – could come back to haunt him.

His reception at Tuesday’s tea party town hall was cordial but not enthusiastic. Still, he has at least one pledge of “no primary challenge” from a major tea partyer – Sal Russo of Tea Party Express, the California-based outfit that sponsored the town hall.

“I think he was an original tea partyer,” Russo told National Review Online on Jan. 27. “He has been talking about our issues from the beginning. Orrin is a Reagan conservative, as far as I’m concerned, and that’s as good as it gets.”

Worth noting: Russo has served as a campaign consultant for Hatch in the past. And certainly others from the proudly decentralized tea party movement could field opposition to Hatch at the convention.

Lugar, on the other hand, already knows he will face his first Senate primary challenge since 1976. He has promised a vigorous campaign and is happy to reveal his campaign war chest: $2.3 million, he told The Hill newspaper last week. Two names have surfaced so far as possible primary opponents, state Treasurer Richard Mourdock and state Sen. Mike Delph.

Indiana tea partyers are already working to find one best choice to oppose Lugar on the GOP primary ballot next year, so that he can’t split the opposition. Whether they succeed is an open question. But if he goes down, he’ll go down fighting.

Lugar remains popular in Indiana, but among Republicans his own polling from November 2010 showed that he faced “a much more competitive situation,” the senator told a Monitor breakfast last month.

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