Hatch’s path to reelection gets easier

Sen. Orrin Hatch’s (R-Utah) path to reelection seems to be growing easier by the day. 

Just months ago Hatch faced the probability of a tough primary challenge from Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) and the possibility of a rough general election against Rep. Jim Matheson (D-Utah).

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But Matheson announced last week that he will not run for the Senate, delivering a blow to Democratic recruitment efforts, as he was likely the only member of the party in the heavily Republican state who could’ve beaten Hatch.

And Chaffetz decided to forgo a primary challenge, leaving conservatives without a top-tier candidate.

While Hatch is still likely to face a Republican foe in state Sen. Dan Liljenquist, he has positioned himself well, campaigning hard across the state, sitting on $4 million in the bank.

“It’ll be more difficult for Sen. Liljenquist to challenge Sen. Hatch than if a congressman had challenged him — he doesn’t have the same name recognition as Rep. Chaffetz,” said state Sen. Stuart Reid, who plans to back Liljenquist over Hatch in the race. “Hands down, Sen. Hatch is the best campaigner this state’s ever known, so it’s no surprise to me that he’s effectively organizing his campaign and is hitting every mark he needs to to run an effective campaign.”

Hatch campaign manager Dave Hansen said he feels “very good about where we are in the campaign,” but added that Utah’s unusual party nomination process means the campaign will take nothing for granted. 

Utah Republicans select their candidates in a party convention of a few hundred activists rather than a statewide primary, making it much easier to knock off a well-funded incumbent. That process gave Mike Lee (R-Utah) the opening to beat then-Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) for 2010’s GOP nomination. Now-Sen. Lee went on to win the general election.

“We’re not slowing down at all,” Hansen said. “We take every challenger seriously, and the convention is a different animal than the primary nominations.”

Liljenquist, who is likely to make a decision about a campaign around Thanksgiving, contends that it’s time for Hatch to leave the Senate.

“God bless the man for his years of service to Utah, but this election will be about the future,” Liljenquist told The Hill. “When he ran in 1976, he said three terms, 18 years was more than enough time in Congress. Even accounting for inflation, 36 years is a long time.”

Hansen called that idea a “false argument.”

“It’s not like college basketball where you play four years and then you’re done,” he said. “He’s still in excellent health with the desire to make changes. There’s no set time a person should retire.”

Meanwhile, Lee, who said earlier this year that he would not endorse in Utah until the nominating process played out, reiterated that stance Monday. His office told The Hill the freshman senator still has no plans to endorse in the race. Lee has endorsed in other Senate contests.

It’s not too late for things to change dramatically for Hatch: Lee did not announce his campaign against Bennett until January 2010. But while Hatch’s path to the nomination is by no means paved, a few major boulders have been rolled out of his way.