All the senator’s horses and all the senator’s men couldn’t quite wrap up the Utah Republican nomination for Orrin Hatch on Saturday. At the GOP convention, the seven-term senator narrowly missed winning the 60 percent of delegates he needed to avoid a primary against former state senator Dan Liljenquist.
Polls still show him favored in the June 26 primary, but Hatch now faces his first serious challenger since he won his seat in 1976. And, as Richard Lugar can testify — the 80-year-old Indiana colleague of Hatch’s is now suddenly neck and neck with a challenger in his own May 8 primary — a lot can happen in the few weeks of an intense campaign.
Hatch knew he would face opposition this year after Tea-party delegates, who dominated the Republican party’s 2010 state convention, unceremoniously dumped his Senate colleague Robert Bennett in favor of Mike Lee, the constitutional scholar who is now Utah’s junior senator. Bennett didn’t even receive enough delegate votes to force a primary.
Tea-party leaders then promptly announced they were likewise upset with Senator Hatch for failing to confront the Washington establishment. And last year, Liljenquist, the author of the state’s pioneering public-pension-reform law, announced he would challenge Hatch from the right.
So Senator Hatch pulled out all the stops for this year’s nominating convention. He spent an unheard-of $5.7 million to encourage newcomers to run in the GOP caucuses that select state-convention delegates. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which dominates Utah, had letters read from the pulpit for three weeks in a row urging people to attend the caucuses, a not-so-subtle sign that the church sought a different caucus electorate than the one that showed up in 2010.
Hatch’s efforts paid off. Of the 4,000 delegates selected, seven out of eight hadn’t been involved in 2010, and a poll this month by the Utah Foundation found that these new delegates were of a different breed. This year, 44 percent of delegates thought that reelecting members of Congress so they could keep their seniority in Washington was important, whereas only 17 percent rated this issue highly two years ago. This year, only 25 percent expressed allegiance to the Tea Party, versus a full 55 percent in 2010. And the delegate mix this year was more Mormon: A full 92 percent were church members, versus 78 percent two years ago.
Prior to the Saturday vote, three separate polls this month showed Hatch clearing the critical 60 percent mark to avoid a primary. Hatch showed delegates a video in which Mitt Romney, the almost certain GOP presidential nominee, endorsed him. He pledged that at age 78, he would never run again, but he also touted the fact that he stands to gain the chairmanship of the powerful Finance Committee should his party take the Senate majority in November. “A strong and experienced chairman can make all the difference in the world,” he told delegates.
But Liljenquist punched back. The 37-year-old businessman reminded voters that seniority isn’t everything. “No one senator is too big to fail,” he said. “No one senator is too big to lose.” He reassured delegates that if Hatch were to lose, then the Senate Finance chair would probably become Dan Crapo, of neighboring Idaho, who is both a strong conservative and a graduate of Utah’s Brigham Young University.
As for his own accomplishments, Liljenquist reminded the audience of his strong record. In the three years he served in the State Senate, from 2008 to 2011, he racked up a string of significant wins: In his freshman year, he authored a bill ending tenure for state workers; he changed the pensions for state workers to a defined-contribution model, putting them on the path to permanent solvency; he followed that up with a Medicaid-reform bill that made Utah the first state in the nation to cap benefit growth in that out-of-control program. For these efforts, Governing magazine named him a 2011 “Public Official of the Year.”
But in truth, for all of Liljenquist’s policy sparkle, a bigger factor in his support was Hatch’s own record. FreedomWorks, a Tea-party group headed by former House majority leader Dick Armey, spent $700,000 on grassroots action against Hatch, which included distributing a 42-page book called Orrin Hatch Facts to delegates.
The Hatch people “hated that book,” says Adam Brandon, a vice president of FreedomWorks. “They quibbled about a couple of typos because they couldn’t attack the substance. [Hatch] voted for the TARP bailouts, the auto bailouts, the Fannie and Freddie bailouts, the Department of Education. The delegates who read it couldn’t believe it.”
But the most damaging material in the FreedomWorks kit was the account of Hatch’s longtime collaboration with his late friend Senator Ted Kennedy. The Republican had supported an individual mandate for health insurance as an alternative to Hillarycare in 1993, and in 1997, he voted for the Kennedy-backed SCHIP program of subsidized health insurance. In 2009, as Barack Obama came into office, Hatch made clear he would like to work with his ailing Democratic friend on comprehensive health-care legislation. “I would like to do [health-care reform] as a legacy issue for [Kennedy], if I can — this would mean a lot to him,” he told The New Republic. Then, as opposition mounted during 2009 to his colleague Bob Bennett’s nomination back home, Hatch quickly transformed into a fierce and often effective critic of Obamacare in all its forms.
The FreedomWorks criticism clearly rattled Hatch. With only days to go before the convention, the normally unflappable Hatch lost it. He told NPR that he had a stern warning for those opposing his reelection: “Give me a break — these people are not conservatives . . . I despise these people, and I’m not the type of guy you come in and dump on without getting punched in the mouth.” The jarring remark broke Hatch’s momentum and — given that he missed the 60 percent threshold at the convention by only 32 delegate votes — it might have made a last-minute difference in shifting some delegates away from him.
Now Senator Hatch will have to defend his record before a broader electorate. No doubt he will outspend his opponent and have the party’s establishment behind him. But his failure on Saturday to conquer a convention he worked so hard to stack with allies shows just how vulnerable he might be in a state where the Tea Party is clearly still a factor.
— John Fund is a national-affairs columnist for NRO.