- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 30, 2011

A year ago, the thought that Robert F. Bennett, a conservative Mormon Republican incumbent from Utah, could lose his Senate seat in the absence of any scandal was nearly unimaginable.

But it happened. And now the same set of treacherous circumstances is starting to fall into place for Mr. Bennett’s fellow Utah Republican, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, who will be on the ballot in 2012.

Like Mr. Bennett, Mr. Hatch has served Utah for many years — maybe too many. The political mood among Republican voters favors fresh faces with tea party connections, and while the 76-year-old Mr. Hatch may be a veritable political institution in his state, he’s not exactly fresh.

For all his conservative credentials — Mr. Hatch boasts an 89 percent lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union — the six-term senator lacks the hard-right edge of the new Republican wave of lawmakers, such as Sen. Mike Lee, who occupies Mr. Bennett’s former seat.

A war of sorts has broken out among tea party factions over Mr. Hatch, with some groups vowing a primary challenge next year and others defending him.

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican
Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican more >

Hatch is old school,” said Brad Coker, managing director of Mason-Dixon Polling & Research. “Hatch has always been a guy on the Republican side who would work with Democrats. He was buddies with Ted Kennedy. It’s the bipartisan Republicans who have been getting chewed up in these contested primaries.”

Still, Mr. Hatch’s statewide name recognition, clout in Washington, fundraising prowess and campaign experience ought to count for something — except that they don’t, at least not during Utah’s unusual nominating process.

Utah political parties select their nominees not through a statewide primary vote but through a nominating convention described as the most restrictive in the nation. About 3,500 party delegates choose the nominee through a series of votes, meaning that a candidate who can win over a couple of thousand delegates can win the nomination even with little in the way of popular statewide support.

The nominating delegates tend to be more partisan and less compromising than the average voter, analysts say.

“People attending the convention are more radical, more libertarian and more distrustful of people in Washington, D.C.,” said Kirk Jowers, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah, at the time of the Bennett race. “The delegate crowd is a much tougher crowd than the rest of the state.”

An early poll shows Mr. Hatch trailing in hypothetical matchups against other well-known Republican pols in the state. A survey of 504 eligible voters by the Utah Policy/Exoro Group released Jan. 18 showed former Gov. Jon Huntsman leading with 48 percent, followed by second-term Rep. Jason Chaffetz with 23 percent. Mr. Hatch came in third with 21 percent.

Mr. Hatch has reached out to tea party organizations — with mixed results.

One of the main groups of the anti-spending movement, the Tea Party Nation, has targeted Mr. Hatch and four other Republican Senate incumbents for defeat, saying they can be replaced by stronger conservatives.

But Mr. Hatch got a bit of good news late last week when the leader of another influential tea party faction said his group would not be targeting Mr. Hatch.

In an interview with National Review Online, Sal Russo, chief strategist for the Tea Party Express, said his group would lay off Mr. Hatch, citing in part the senator’s decision in the mid-1970s to support the insurgent presidential candidacy of Ronald Reagan against President Ford. Mr. Russo at the time was trying to rally backers for Reagan’s primary run and Mr. Hatch was chairman of Utah’s Republican Party.

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