Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Republican from Utah, has served in the upper chamber for 34 years. But he’s up for reelection in 2012, and with voters eagerly tossing out incumbents, his “safe seat” may be anything but. “He’s toast,” says Utah GOP delegate Saima Leon to Politico. “You better watch out,” warns Sen. Arlen Specter.
After being greeted by a smattering of boos at Utah’s GOP convention last week, Hatch finds himself being cast as a member of the Washington establishment. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R., Utah), a 43-year-old freshman, told National Review Online on Wednesday that he is considering challenging Hatch in the 2012 primary. “I’m not willing to shut the door on a potential Senate run,” he says. “I serve at the will of the delegates. If that’s what they want, then maybe I will.”
Chaffetz believes he can make “the case” against Hatch, pointing to the senator’s willingness to accept earmarks. The Club for Growth, a conservative political-action committee, has also cited Hatch’s record, including his support of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), as a potential problem.
Despite this, Hatch tells NRO that he’s ready for any challenge. “This is not me trying to hold onto some job,” Hatch says. “For me, this is public service. So I will run. I will not retire, as long as I feel good. I have made a commitment to a lifetime of service. I could have made a lot more money if I stayed with the law firm back in 1976.”
Party delegates ousted Hatch’s fellow Utah Republican senator, Bob Bennett, from the state’s GOP Senate primary last week. “I feel very badly for Senator Bennett,” Hatch says. “He is a good man and a good senator. He has seniority and would have been a leader on the banking committee and kept his high seat on appropriations. We’re losing that type of clout. Life’s not going to end with his absence, but we could have used those positions for Utah and the country.”
Would Ronald Reagan have wanted Bennett ousted? “Heavens no,” Hatch says. “He would have wanted Bennett in the Senate.”
“Reagan treated me like a son or a brother,” Hatch recalls. “I was the only member of Congress sitting with him in New Hampshire when he had to win. I sat with him and Nancy that whole night [in 1980]. He always said that Republicans shouldn’t attack fellow Republicans. Now, I think he’d look at what happened in Utah and realize it was an extraordinary situation, understanding the anger. At the same time, though, he’d understand the importance of having conservatives with experience, like me, to be in there, fighting.”
Though sad to see Bennett go, Hatch has only praise for the pair of Republicans who are now running to replace Bennett. “Both of the two remaining men are excellent, good people,” he says. “Mike Lee is a very conservative, intelligent lawyer. Tim Bridgewater is a very conservative businessman.”
Bennett’s loss reflects the growing anti-incumbent fervor in the Beehive State. According to a recent Salt Lake Tribune poll, more than half of Utahns say they would elect someone other than Hatch if he were up for reelection this year. Only 35 percent say they support him. Perhaps most ominous for Hatch is this figure: 71 percent of state-GOP delegates say they would prefer another candidate.
Hatch, very aware of those numbers, is not staying idle. According to Utah GOP insiders, the senator is already starting to reach out. LaVarr Webb, a Utah political consultant and GOP delegate, told the Tribune that he got an invitation last week to participate in a telephone town hall just days after the paper’s poll was released. “I definitely think that he is concerned about his reelection,” Webb says. “He is making a real attempt to connect.”
While extending a hand may be smart politics, it may not be enough to save Hatch’s seat. “This is madness,” exclaims Michael Tomasky, a writer for Britain’s Guardian newspaper. “Hatch is very conservative by any rational measure. His crime in this instance is that he is also a person with some degree of regard for the institution in which he works and some measure of civic-minded decency, which prevents him from seeing every single matter as purely ideological.”
“The anger out there is against Washington and the federal government,” Bennett explained in a recent NRO interview, “as if the federal government were some monolithic, single institution. And I’m in Washington, so with many of [the voters], I’m seen as part of the federal government, the government they want to throw out and punish. They tell me the only way they can punish the federal government is by voting against you — nothing against you, nothing personal, you understand. Voting me out, they say, is the only way we can send the message to Washington that we hate them.”
Hatch agrees. “The delegates are so doggone mad,” he says. “They’re angry. They want to throw everybody out. Even though they admit you’re a good senator, that’s what they want.”
Hatch doesn’t think that level of anger is helpful for the conservative cause in Washington. “It’s pretty tough to find people to lead fights who know what they’re doing. I’m able to tell Utahns that I will be the lead Republican on the Finance Committee to stop the Obama tax hikes. That’s big. It’s one thing to lose Senator Bennett. It’s another thing to lose me.” Then again, National Journal points out, Bennett is the GOP caucus’s 23rd most conservative senator — and Hatch is 30th. Hatch brushes back against any concerns about his past bipartisan legislative efforts. “You can stick to your true, conservative Republican principles without giving up,” he says. “Sometimes we’ll work with Democrats to make things less onerous and terrible.”
“We all want conservatives to be elected,” Hatch continues. “But they may not be as conservative as Jim DeMint,” South Carolina’s junior senator. And even by this measure, Hatch says, he’s conservative enough: “I’ve out-conservatived him for 34 years. I’ve rated 90 percent [from the American Conservative Union] for my entire career.”
“It’s one thing for a new guy to talk about his high rating and conservative values,” Hatch says. “But let’s see someone do it for a long time.”
– Robert Costa is the William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at the National Review Institute.