Sen. Hatch looks to knock out Tea Party foes at Utah’s Republican convention

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) is looking to deal a knockout blow to his political opponents at next Saturday’s Utah Republican convention.

If Hatch can secure the support of 60 percent of the convention’s delegates he gets to avoid a primary entirely — a big shift from some Tea Party backers’ original goal to knock him out at the convention, like they did to then-Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) two years ago.

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“There’s a good chance that we could avoid a primary altogether,” Dave Hansen, Hatch’s campaign manager, told The Hill on Friday.

Hatch’s campaign released an internal poll of the convention’s 4,000 delegates showing the six-term senator with 61 percent of their support, right at the threshold he needs. His next closest rival, former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist (R), was at 22 percent in the poll. Hatch also had an 80 percent approval rating, the poll found.

Some Tea Party groups, most notably the Washington, D.C.-based FreedomWorks, have gone hard after Hatch with hopes to unseat him this year. But unlike Bennett two years ago, Hatch started working early to make sure that his supporters showed up at the statewide caucuses that determined the convention’s delegates — and his campaign spent more than $5 million since the beginning of 2011 on the race. The long-term senator also moved to the right on key issues to shore up his support among the party’s base.

FreedomWorks spent more than $650,000 before last month’s caucuses to beat Hatch, but seem to have fallen short in their efforts.

Russ Walker, the group’s vice president, said he thought Hatch’s polls overestimated his strength. But he admitted that their original goal of taking him out at the convention was likely out of reach, and their best hope was to force a primary and try to beat him there.

“While we’d love to beat Hatch at the convention at this point I think our best shot is to get into the primary with him,” he told The Hill. “Once we saw the delegate list we knew that was the best we could hope for, to get into the primary and battle it out again.”

There is no love lost between Hatch and the hard-line fiscally conservative group. Hatch told The Hill last month he thought the group was “nasty,” “unfair” and “despicable.”

“There were so many dirty things they tried to pull out here,” he said.

On Thursday, Hatch went a step further in his criticism. “I despise these people, and I’m not the guy you come in and dump on without getting punched in the mouth,” he said on National Public Radio.

Walker took offense at Hatch’s comments.

“I think there are serious concerns from people about these kinds of threats,” he said. “That isn’t very senatorial and I’d like to know what he means by that threat. Is he really going to punch us in the face?”

Both sides are hard at work preparing for the convention. Hatch has been holding small meetings and making phone calls to undecided delegates and supporters, seeking to assuage concerns and shore up his support. FreedomWorks has also been calling delegates and has continued its direct mail efforts aimed at convincing them Hatch is not a true conservative.

FreedomWorks has also spent $10,000 to have a booth at the convention. Walker said he and six other FreedomWorks employees will be there, and had recruited 50 volunteers from within Utah to help them.

Even if Hatch fails to garner 60 percent of the vote at the convention, polls show he remains very popular with Republicans statewide, and would be tough to beat if he is forced to run in a primary. He also has a huge cash advantage, with $3.24 million in the bank compared to Liljenquist’s $300,000.

Walker promised they would “absolutely” be heavily involved in the primary if they manage to force one, but admitted that Hatch is in good shape at this point.

“There’s no question it’s going to be difficult,” he said. “We certainly think Hatch will be safer in the primary.” 

Hatch has said if he wins reelection this will be his last term.