Those two words — a brusque message to tea-party activists — may have ended Senator Dick Lugar’s political career. A frustrated Lugar made the remark a year ago, during the START-treaty debate, and it haunted him up until last month’s primary, when he was defeated by Indiana state treasurer Richard Mourdock, a tea-party favorite.
Lugar’s quip was indicative of his politics. Two years ago, the tea-party movement tilted the Republican party to the right, but Lugar did not adapt, or necessarily care, about the GOP sea change. He remained one of the upper chamber’s most prominent moderates — a dealmaker, a foreign-policy statesman, and a friend of the president.
Lugar assumed that his stature was enough to win him another term. He’d huddle with tea-party leaders on the campaign trail, but never, in a political sense, did he wear a tri-corner hat. Sure, he touted his opposition to Obamacare and criticized Obama on Libya. But last summer, he voted to extend the debt ceiling, an act of tea-party heresy.
For his part, Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah voted against a debt-ceiling extension — and he can look forward to another six years on Capitol Hill. Hatch beat back a tea-party challenge on Tuesday, coasting past former state senator Dan Liljenquist. Of course, Hatch’s debt-ceiling vote didn’t his guarantee his reelection, but it sure made winning easier.
#more#Hatch’s victory shouldn’t necessarily be interpreted as a tea-party disappointment. As a little-known political outsider, Liljenquist may have been a more natural tea-party lawmaker, but for the past two years, Hatch has cast nearly as many conservative votes as Senator Jim DeMint, the trusted leader of the GOP conference’s tea-party bloc.
As Arizona Republicans did two years ago during Senator John McCain’s primary, Utah conservatives decided to keep their veteran incumbent, but in the process, they forced Hatch to tack right. For tea-party supporters, this is hardly something to shrug off. Hatch and others may remain, but the Tea Party has created new ground rules for survival.
For decades, Hatch voted to increase the nation’s debt limit, a fact Liljenquist repeatedly mentioned. But ever since May 2010, when disgruntled Utah Republican delegates booted Senator Bob Bennett out of the state’s GOP primary, Hatch has been dogged about appealing to voters he long believed were automatic members of his political base.
As Beltway insiders often say, “Adapt or die,” and Hatch adapted. Instead of telling the tea party to “get real,” he made constant overtures. He battled alongside DeMint, Senator Mike Lee of Utah, and other tea-party senators to pass a balanced-budget amendment, and voted against elevating Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court.
For his post-2010 scurry to the right, Hatch was rewarded with a 100-percent rating from the American Conservative Union, and the Club for Growth, which played a part in Bennett’s defeat, gave him a similar rating. Meanwhile, Lugar supported the confirmation of Kagan and Sotomayor and refused to sign Grover Norquist’s anti-tax pledge.
You can call Hatch’s maneuvering shameless, strategic, or both, but it was hardly his preferred path. As a longtime politico, he has built much of his career on bipartisanship. While he has been a fierce defender of conservative judicial nominees, he was also the Republican who created the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) with Ted Kennedy.
If Senate Republicans take the majority, Hatch will likely become chairman of the Finance Committee, which shapes tax policy. Some conservative operatives are worried that Hatch would revert back to his past ways, working with liberal lions. But tea-party groups seem comfortable with Tuesday’s outcome. For now, he’s one of them.
“We would have liked to have seen Senator Hatch replaced,” said Russ Walker, the national political director for FreedomWorks, in an interview with Time magazine. “Short of that, we’re pretty pleased with what happened in the race. Senator Hatch moved as far to the right as he possibly could to get reelected, and that to us is a victory in itself.”
FreedomWorks was a major Liljenquist backer, and spent nearly a million dollars in the Beehive State. Call Walker’s words spin if you want, but his point may be the silver lining of Hatch’s win. Hatch, age 78, says this next term will be his last. So if he strays from the tea-party line, he doesn’t have to worry about a primary challenge, but he’ll surely face the wrath of the right.
Hatch kept his prized seat thanks to conservatives. They looked at his record since Bennett’s dismissal and nodded approvingly. Two years ago, as the Tea Party gained steam, Hatch and Lugar found themselves at a crossroads. They could join the march, or look on. Lugar did the latter and he’s gone. Hatch joined. Conservatives really hope he’s a convert.