The two people least surprised by Sarah Palin’s endorsement of Senator Orrin Hatch this week are Palin and Hatch. In the Twitter and Facebook era, they became political allies the old-fashioned way: through handwritten letters and personal phone calls.
It’s an unlikely, politics-fueled friendship that’s fit for a Robert Caro book. Hatch, a soft-spoken grandfather, is one of Palin’s top outside mentors. He encourages her and cheers her. They share family stories, they discuss history, and they talk about legislation.
“It’s true,” Palin tells National Review Online. “He’s a warrior.” She respects his record, especially his work on the Senate Judiciary Committee, where Hatch has frequently been an influential figure during contentious Supreme Court confirmations.
Even though she is 30 years his junior, Palin has grown to appreciate Hatch’s historical perspective on Congress, the presidency, and the conservative movement. “I respect public servants who benefited from and grew under the tutelage of Ronald Reagan,” she says.
The warmth is mutual. “She and her husband are the handsomest couple that I’ve ever met,” Hatch says, smiling, as we chat in his spacious Senate office. “They’re both top-flight people and I got angry with the mainstream media constantly running her down.”
Hatch openly acknowledges that he has long and doggedly sought Palin’s support. For him, strong personal relationships are an elemental part of politics. They do not trump his principles, he says, but they have enabled him to become a force on Capitol Hill.
Strategic relationships may also be the reason Hatch keeps his seat. Beyond Palin, the 78-year-old senator has assiduously wooed tea-party activists and conservatives over the past two years, keenly aware of the challenge he faces in Utah’s upcoming primary.
Dan Liljenquist, a conservative former state senator, has mounted a tea-party insurgency against Hatch, but he failed to topple Hatch at the state GOP’s nominating convention. Liljenquist remains the underdog as primary day, June 26, approaches. But his campaign team maintains that Palin’s endorsement isn’t a factor.
“Sarah Palin can do whatever she wants, but this doesn’t affect our race,” says Holly Richardson, Liljenquist’s campaign manager. “Endorsing Orrin Hatch is the antithesis of what she says she represents — breaking up the old guard and bringing change to Washington. But I guess they’re friends.”
Hatch’s quiet courtship of Palin is a microcosm of how he has managed to stay ahead, unlike some of his fellow incumbents, such as Senator Dick Lugar of Indiana, who lost a similar primary race earlier this month. Hatch has gone out of his way to make friends.
Two years ago, Hatch’s former Senate GOP colleague, Bob Bennett, was ambushed at the state convention and lost his reelection bid. Hatch vowed to not let that happen to him. He would respond to the potshots; he would not let his detractors define him.
The plan was simple, Hatch says. Instead of merely reasserting his conservatism from the Senate floor, he would huddle with conservatives at tea-party rallies and conferences. He would overwhelm them with his liveliness and his commitment.
“I saw this movement coming before Senator Bennett did,” Hatch recalls. “A year before the Bennett race, I invited David Kirkham, a Utah tea-party leader and an outstanding man, to come meet with me in my office. I spent two and a half hours with him.”
Since then, Hatch has hosted similar meetings with countless Utah conservatives. He didn’t agree with everyone who stopped by his office, but he tended to ease concerns. He is encyclopedic about his record and takes care to contextualize the troublesome votes.
“From time to time, I have been criticized by some in the conservative movement,” Hatch says. “When they are right, I’m going to follow what they say. But most of the time, I have been able to explain why I voted a certain way or did certain things.”
Palin was another tea-party leader who gave Hatch an opportunity to review his Senate experiences, from the Clarence Thomas hearing to his near-victorious battle to pass a balanced-budget amendment. Hatch also says he learned from her. “She is the prime reason the conservative base really played a factor in the last presidential election,” he says. He keeps tabs on her speeches and appearances.
“She’s sharp as a tack,” Hatch says. “I like the way she defends herself and our conservative values.” When she was attacked in the press, he’d defend her in conversations with reporters, during talk-radio interviews, and on cable television.
Sources close to the Alaskan say Palin noticed Hatch’s consistent and vocal support. It drew them closer as friends and deepened their growing political ties. Palin didn’t mind having a Senate legend in her corner; Hatch liked having a tea-party star in his.
When Palin went on Fox News on Tuesday night to signal her support for Hatch ahead of the primary, it was a pleasant surprise to the senator, but not entirely unexpected.
Early Wednesday, the pair spoke on the phone. “I told her that I love her and her husband,” Hatch chuckles. “She said, ‘We love you, too,’ and that she’s here to help.”
“Look, it was a nice conversation,” Hatch says. “I can’t claim that I’ve been a major influence for Sarah, other than what she may have observed from all the fights around here. But I must say, I’ve watched her very carefully and I think the world of her.”
They may be from different generations, but it’s a fighter’s instinct that, in Hatch’s telling, binds them. “She’s had more than her fair share of barbs but she keeps coming back,” Hatch says. “I never give up, either.” In this race, oddly enough, that may mean killing off a conservative challenge.
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.