Vulnerable in ’12? Seek out DeMint

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) says his Senate Republican colleagues have already broached the subject of getting his endorsement in the 2012 primaries.

“Some have suggested that they hope I’ll support them,” DeMint said Wednesday. 

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DeMint said those conversations were half-joking, but he believes the desire for an alliance with him is real.

“It’s more tongue-in-cheek smiling right now,” DeMint said, declining to name names. “We’re just laughing about it. It will get serious when we get into next year. Obviously, I’m hoping we can have a change in tone with some good new common-sense conservatives.”

In recent weeks, DeMint has emerged as one of the top congressional allies of the Tea Party, the conservative movement that has shown an ability to make or break GOP candidates.

Several Republican senators, including Orrin Hatch (Utah), Olympia Snowe (Maine), Bob Corker (Tenn.) and Scott Brown (Mass.) could face stiff competition from conservative challengers in two years, which would make DeMint’s endorsement a valuable commodity.

At the top of the vulnerable list for 2012 is Hatch, who may have to battle conservative Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah).

Some political experts in Utah think Chaffetz would have an edge over Hatch if he decided to challenge him. Chaffetz has already proven he can knock off an incumbent; he beat a six-term Republican to win election to the House in 2008.

Chaffetz said he may challenge Hatch in 2012, calling a Senate bid a “definite maybe.” He said he would make a decision in about 14 or 15 months.

Many conservatives in Utah view Hatch, who entered the Senate in 1977, as a longtime Republican insider, according to Matthew Burbank, a political science professor at the University of Utah.

“I think at the moment that Chaffetz would probably have an advantage,” said Burbank. “He is seen as a newer face and he’s well-regarded among conservatives.”

“It’s an odd thing,” Burbank said. “Hatch is a very conservative senator, a leading senator and leading voice, but like [Sen. Bob] Bennett [R-Utah], he is not particularly well-liked by conservatives in the state.

“It’s a sense that Hatch is a Washington insider, that he’s been there far too long and he’s forgotten what it’s like to live in Utah.”

A conservative opponent may also try to exploit Hatch’s history of working with prominent liberals such as the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), with whom he sponsored legislation to create the State Children’s Health Insurance Program in the late ’90s.

Hatch has been viewed as vulnerable to a challenge from the right ever since Bennett lost the GOP Senate nomination to conservative Mike Lee at Utah’s Republican primary convention earlier this year.

Hatch said that nominating convention always poses a challenge and that 2012 will be no different from years past.

“I’ve always had conservative challenges; I’ve never had an election where I haven’t had some challenges,” Hatch said. “We’re always concerned, but it’s not all-consuming to me. I run a hard race.

“I always run scared.”

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Hatch told The Hill that he has not asked DeMint for an endorsement.

Kirk Jowers, the director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics, an affiliate of the University of Utah, said a race between Chaffetz and Hatch would make for a “battle royale.”

“A lot of people say that Hatch is dead in the water, but never underestimate Orrin Hatch,” Jowers said. “He’s won too many of these elections, and he’s got the money and everything else to make it a real fight.”

DeMint has emerged as a kingmaker of sorts in this year’s Senate Republican primaries.

He endorsed Rand Paul in Kentucky, who triumphed over Trey Grayson, the candidate endorsed by Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.).

DeMint also endorsed conservative upstart Christine O’Donnell, who stunned Rep. Mike Castle in last week’s Delaware Senate Republican primary.

Conservative lawmakers expect populist dissatisfaction with Washington to continue beyond the midterm elections.

Chaffetz said the movement is made up of “good old-fashioned Americans who are mad and they want to be part of the solution and not part of the problem.”

He said many conservative voters are furious about President Obama’s $787 billion economic stimulus package and his healthcare reform law. He said they are also wary of Republicans who did not do enough to rein in the growth of government when they controlled Washington.

“Incumbency is a burden, not an asset,” said Chaffetz. “Service used to be a selling point, and now it’s an albatross around the candidate’s neck.

“If you want different results, you’re going to have to elect different people. I think that message has staying power across the country and you’re going to see that in 2012.”

Snowe, Corker and Brown all have track records of negotiating with Democrats that primary challengers could use as political ammo when they face reelection in the next cycle.

Republican activists who ousted Bennett, for example, cited his work with Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) on healthcare reform.

Brown, who declined to discuss the possibility of a 2012 primary, has cultivated a relationship with DeMint. He regularly attends meetings of the conservative Senate Republican Steering Committee, which DeMint chairs.

Traditionally, centrist Republicans such as Brown haven’t attended these meetings, which are intended to promote conservative policymaking within the GOP conference.

“I haven’t missed one yet,” said Brown, who added that he has a good relationship with DeMint and all of his GOP colleagues.

Chaffetz said he also has a good relationship with DeMint.

“He’s great,” said Chaffetz. “It’s a very friendly relationship. I’d love to spend more time with him. He’s working hard and he puts policy and principle ahead of the party. That’s been a great asset.”