Senator Orrin Hatch (R., Utah) is 42 points ahead of his challenger, former state senator Dan Liljenquist, 62–20, in the latest poll for the Salt Lake Tribune. Senator Dick Lugar (R., Ind.), on the other hand, is five points behind his opponent, state treasurer Richard Mourdock, 39–44, in a poll commissioned by Citizens United, which is supporting Mourdock.
Tea partiers’ lists of grievances against the two grandees read largely the same: Both men have been in the Senate since 1977; both voted for TARP; both fostered friendly relations with Democrats. But Hatch has a firmer grasp on his party’s nomination than Lugar because he reached out to tea-party groups earlier in the election cycle.
Indeed, Mourdock’s lead in the polls rests largely on his tea-party support. Among tea partiers, Mourdock leads 63–24. Moderates and traditional conservatives, meanwhile, side with Lugar. In 2010 — the year tea partiers ousted Hatch’s former colleague Bob Bennett — Hatch faced a similar dynamic: Seventy-one percent of delegates to the Utah GOP’s tea-party-dominated state convention wanted Hatch out.
Alarmed, the Beehive State’s senior senator sprang into action. He spent $3 million contacting over 100,000 Republicans in the state and pinpointed 5,000 people willing to run as pro-Hatch delegates to this year’s state convention, the Salt Lake Tribune reports. He courted prominent members of the state’s tea-party groups — he even hired some of them.
Hatch also ratcheted up his rhetoric. For example, speaking to a group of College Republicans in February 2011, he called Obamacare an “awful piece of crap” and a “dumbass program.” (He later apologized for his crudity.) And he shifted his voting record rightward. In 2011, for instance, he earned a 99 percent rating from the Club for Growth for his votes that year, 21 points higher than his lifetime rating of 78.
That wasn’t enough to persuade Club for Growth spokesman Barney Keller, who told FactCheck.org that Hatch had experienced “an election year conversion” and that his voting record was “hardly conservative.”
Still, Hatch’s approach is working. He was only 32 votes shy of winning the 60 percent necessary to secure the nomination at the convention. Liljenquist, meanwhile, barely got enough votes to be placed on the ballot. Roger Bringhurst, a tea-party sympathizer who’s supporting Hatch, tells NRO he’s had several in-person encounters with the senator. “I’ve met him at a couple of his meetings,” Bringhurst says. “I’ve talked to him quite a bit. It’s resonating.”
Lugar’s charm offensive began in 2011, a year after Hatch’s, and was considerably less aggressive. He maintained his moderate tone and outsourced attacks — millions of dollars in attack ads, in fact — to campaign staff and outside groups, such as the American Action Network.
Compared with Hatch, Lugar also has more ground to make up. Dee Dee Benkie, Republican national committeewoman for Indiana, says she’s never met Lugar, even though she’s held her office since 2008. “I have never met Dick Lugar, and I have been to more Lincoln Day dinners, GOP events, and tea-party rallies than can be counted,” she writes in an e-mail to NRO. And at those same events, Mourdock has been a constant presence. “He always makes a point to try and shake everyone’s hand in the room,” she writes.
One conservative operative who’s been keeping an eye on both races agrees. “While Senator Hatch started his lurch to the right as soon as Bob Bennett lost, abandoning his previous support for No Child Left Behind, earmarks, and bailouts, Senator Lugar has actually defended earmarks and the auto bailout during his campaign,” the operative says. “I don’t think Senator Lugar has ever tried to reach out to tea-party groups and he continues to insult conservatives by attacking Richard Mourdock for taking conservative positions like wanting to eliminate cabinet agencies.”
Andy Fisher, a spokesman for the Lugar campaign, tells NRO that the senator’s aides set up a phone-bank operation in early 2011 and assembled a staff and opened campaign headquarters later that year. Lugar’s most effective outreach, Fisher adds, has consisted of meet-and-greets with tea-party leaders and other conservative activists.
“We’ve done dozens of these meet-and-greets around the state,” Fisher says. “I couldn’t begin to enumerate how many there have been — all of this year and going back to part of last year.” And like Hatch’s, Lugar’s efforts are having an effect. “As he’s met with tea-party groups, they’ve indicated to him that we have the same views,” Fisher adds. “We’re for cutting spending, getting the debt under control, and doing things that create free-market job growth.”
Consider Chuck Ford, chairman of the Hamilton County Tea Party. Initially he leaned toward Mourdock, who spoke to his group in February 2011. But after meeting with Lugar over breakfast and asking him questions for three hours in December, Ford decided that after voting for him six times, he would do so again on May 8.
“He’s been very cooperative,” Ford tells NRO. The tea-party leader asked Lugar to meet with his friend Jim Jordan, a conservative congressman from Ohio, to see if they could develop a working relationship. Lugar complied, and the two legislators now have a blossoming friendship, Ford reports.
Lugar’s ability to converse on almost any topic convinced Ford that, contra his opponents’ allegations, he wasn’t too old to do the job, nor was he a liberal. “I find him to be an extremely well-informed senator,” Ford says. “His depth of knowledge is beyond belief.”
Don Bauder, vice chair of the Hamilton County Tea Party, had a similar experience. At the start of the campaign, he harbored doubts about Lugar’s candidacy. But he was turned off by the negativity of Mourdock supporters. “His supporters were very rabid and nasty,” Bauder says. “They were doing nothing but attacking Lugar.”
The incumbent, however, “is such a positive, upbeat guy.” And “with his seniority among the leaders in the Senate, he can get things done for us,” Bauder argues. Bringhurst makes the same case for Hatch: “I’m thinking that a senior senator with his influence and knowledge would be the person we need in there.”
Hatch and Lugar have both argued, with some efficacy, that outside groups such as FreedomWorks and the Club for Growth, which are backing their opponents, are unwelcome outside influences on their elections. According to a poll commissioned by Hatch’s campaign, almost 70 percent of the delegates to the state convention had a negative impression of FreedomWorks.
If Hatch trounces Liljenquist in the primary, and if Lugar squeaks by Mourdock in his, their victories will be due in some part to their personal outreach to conservative activists. Only one-on-one face time with the candidates — accompanied by intricate explanations of their controversial votes — could lead activists concerned with capturing control of the Senate to believe, in Bringhurst’s words, that “we’ve got to stay with the party we have now, or we’re going to disrupt the whole thing.”
— Brian Bolduc is an editorial associate for National Review.