The GOP nomination process in Utah is tailor-made for insurgents, as Republican senator Robert Bennett learned the hard way this year. At a party convention in May, he finished third. His opponents succeeded in portraying him as a Washington insider who had lost touch with conservatives back home. One of them, Mike Lee, strolled to victory in November.
So Utah conservatives immediately started to wonder: Is Orrin Hatch next? He’s more conservative than Bennett. He also possesses better political skills. But he may have to face a foe who is much better known than Lee was at this point in the last election cycle: Republican congressman Jason Chaffetz. The 43-year-old speaks openly about trying to nab the nomination. “I’m a definite maybe,” he says. “Hatch has been a great senator, but he’s asking voters to keep him in office for 42 years, until he’s 84.”
Chaffetz insists that his campaign would amount to more than a youth revolt against an aging incumbent. It would include a long list of policy complaints. “Hatch voted to bail out the financial markets and expand the S-CHIP health-care program,” says Chaffetz. “What’s conservative about that?” Pro-lifers regard Hatch as an ally on many fronts, but note with regret that he has favored the federal funding of stem-cell research that destroys human embryos.
Bennett’s failure to win renomination isn’t the only bit of recent history that should trouble Hatch. There’s also the way in which Chaffetz won election to Congress in 2008: He beat Chris Cannon, a six-term incumbent, by running an issues-driven race and taking advantage of Utah’s peculiar nominating rules, which emphasize personal connections with party activists. “I did it once and I can do it again,” says Chaffetz. “I was a Tea Party candidate before there was a Tea Party.”
The issue that energized Chaffetz and his supporters two years ago was immigration. Cannon was an outspoken backer of President Bush’s proposal to offer amnesty to illegal aliens and create a new guest-worker program. Chaffetz opposed the whole package. Hatch doesn’t provide quite as big a target for conservative ire, but Chaffetz is quick to point out that the senator was for the DREAM Act before he was against it. Hatch can throw a few punches of his own: Chaffetz is a critic of the war in Afghanistan, a position that could give pause to Republicans who want to fight an aggressive war on terror.
The main problem for Chaffetz may be that few Utah Republicans see Hatch as just another Bennett. “People like Orrin a lot,” says Jim Hansen, a retired congressman who endorsed Lee over Bennett this year but plans to stick with Hatch. “If you have a ditch problem on your ranch and the federal government is harassing you, Orrin will jump right on it. People appreciate that.” Former governor Norm Bangerter also supported Lee in 2010 and insists he’ll be with Hatch in 2012.
But it’s early to bet against Chaffetz. He says he’s in no hurry to make up his mind, and Utah Republicans still have a lot of time to make up theirs.