Sen. Hatch facing do-or-die caucuses

Sen. Orrin Hatch’s (R-Utah) political career will be on the line in the next week.

Utah’s primary is still months away, but Hatch’s future is likely to be determined at the March 15 Utah Republican caucuses, making this a do-or-die week for the six-term senator.

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The state has a convoluted nomination process: Its caucuses select delegates to the state convention, where the party determines whether to hold a primary. 

Tea Party activists packed the convention and defeated Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) there two years ago, and hope to do so this year to beat Hatch. But unlike Bennett, Hatch is ready for the fight. 

“We’ve been at this campaign for a year and our focus has been on the caucuses,” said Hatch campaign manager Dave Hansen. “We take them very seriously. Are we focused on them? Absolutely.”

For almost a year, Hatch has been recruiting people to run as delegates, training volunteers in how the caucuses work and running targeted radio and television ads aimed at active Republicans. His first direct-mail piece went out last summer. 

The senator has taken on an increasingly conservative tone, leading the charge in Congress on the Balanced Budget Amendment, a cause he’s long pursued. He’s lined up support from prominent conservatives including right-wing radio hosts Sean Hannity and Mark Levin as well as Mitt Romney, who remains immensely popular in the state. Hatch’s latest radio ad features extensive praise from Romney.

But Hatch lost one of his best arguments for reelection last week. He’d long warned that if he lost, centrist Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) would likely get the Finance Committee chairmanship, a point many in the state say had some traction with the politically savvy caucus-goers. But Snowe’s recent decision to retire has made that point moot.

The Tea Party-affiliated Freedomworks is trying to take Hatch out, but acknowledged he’s proven a much tougher foe than Bennett. 

“He saw this coming, has been preparing for 18 months, has dozens of employees working full time on the ground, and he’s bringing an enormous amount of resources dedicated to this pre-caucus battle,” said Freedomworks Vice President Russ Walker. 

The fight is now all about the delegates who will go to the convention, which Freedomworks sees as its best shot at ending Hatch’s career. 

If 60 percent of the convention delegates are Hatch supporters, he avoids the primary altogether and becomes the nominee, which Hatch’s campaign says is its goal. 

If anti-Hatch forces reach 60 percent, he’ll lose in the convention. 

If neither side reaches 60 percent, Hatch will be forced into a primary, but his high level of popularity with the general GOP electorate and his huge war chest will give him the edge in that race.

“If he makes it to the primary, his money will make a difference,” said Walker, whose group has invested a half-million dollars into the effort and has been at it since June — before Hatch began his own direct-mailing efforts. 

Walker said Freedomworks’s goal is to knock Hatch out on the second ballot of the convention, something that would require both of his GOP opponents, former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist and state Rep. Chris Herrod, to finish ahead of him. 

Both sides have been hard at work finding volunteers to run as state convention delegates, training them in the caucus rules and making sure they turn out to vote.

“In effect what you’re doing is putting together 1,820 individual campaigns all occurring on the same night, which is a massive task, to be honest with you,” Hansen said.

Brigham Young University Professor Adam Brown said both sides are well-organized but Hatch’s forces likely have the edge.

“Both Hatch and Freedomworks have sent me a pile of mail. If organization means mailing things out, then they’re both strong,” he said. “I’ve had several mailers from Hatch inviting me to those meetings to train to be a delegate. I haven’t seen anything like that from Freedomworks.”

It will be hard to tell afterward if either side has won — delegates do not have to officially declare themselves for a candidate, and there is a chance that some will be uncommitted party activists who can still be persuaded.

But if Hatch survives the convention, he’ll be tough to beat. “All he needs is 40 percent [of delegates] to make the primary,” Brown said. “And he’ll win that primary.”