Later Tuesday, if the polls are accurate, Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah will escape the fate of a couple of his fellow white-haired Republicans: He’ll survive a tea-party challenge. Hatch leads his primary foe, former state legislator Dan Liljenquist, by double digits in most polls, and in a Deseret News survey released on Monday, 60 percent of likely GOP voters say they’ll back him.
Hatch’s likely victory can be credited to the 78-year-old senator’s pluck and his brazen politicking. For over a year, Hatch has outspent and outmaneuvered his conservative critics. From securing Sarah Palin’s endorsement to quietly courting the Beehive State’s tea-party activists, he has been tenacious. Here are five more reasons why he’ll win.
Two years ago, when Senator Bob Bennett, a longtime Republican incumbent, faced a tea-party uprising at the Utah GOP convention, he was eliminated from the final primary ballot. Two relatively unknown challengers, Mike Lee and Tim Bridgewater, used the support of conservative delegates to win the two run-off slots and elbow Bennett out of contention.
Liljenquist, for his part, has been unable to push Hatch to the sidelines in similar fashion. In fact, Liljenquist’s experience at this year’s GOP convention was the opposite of Lee and Bridgewater: Instead of kicking Hatch off of the final Republican primary ballot, Liljenquist was nearly edged out by the incumbent, who came within a few votes of securing the nomination at the convention.
Ever since, Liljenquist has struggled to combat Hatch’s strong name recognition. Unlike Bennett, who was a low-key and ill-prepared primary candidate, Hatch has been ubiquitous, and his ads seem to run on a loop on Salt Lake–area television. After the party convention, Lee, who now holds Bennett’s former seat, only had to beat Bridgewater; Liljenquist has to beat a man who has been a national force since 1976.
Hatch has spent $10 million on his reelection fight, which is a Utah record, according to the Salt Lake Tribune, and cash has been critical to his chances. But it hasn’t meant everything. Perhaps more important are the dollars that certain conservative outfits chose not to spend. Since the beginning of the primary, many tea-party groups have wavered on whether to support a Hatch challenger.
Over a year ago, in January 2011, the Tea Party Express, an influential grassroots operation, showed the first sign of trouble for Hatch’s opponents when its strategist, Sal Russo, told NRO that he was not interested in messing with the incumbent. “He is somebody who has been willing to stand up for a long time,” Russo said, reflecting on Hatch’s past support for Ronald Reagan.
The Club for Growth, which helped to defeat Bennett, has also largely stayed out of the Utah primary. Instead, the Club has devoted its attention to other conservative Senate candidates, such as Texan Ted Cruz. Liljenquist isn’t on their radar. FreedomWorks, a group run by former congressman Dick Armey, has mounted an anti-Hatch campaign, but it has been a lonely effort.
On the talk-radio front, Mark Levin has endorsed Hatch, as has Sean Hannity. Palin, who has become a tea-party favorite since her vice-presidential run, provided perhaps the greatest boost. “He’s a warrior,” she told NRO shortly after her endorsement. Hatch wooed her for months, writing her warm letters and encouraging her when her critics were rough — and it paid off.
Oh, what a difference two years can make. When Mitt Romney flew into Salt Lake City earlier this month to raise money for Hatch, he arrived as the presumptive Republican presidential nominee. He was escorted by Secret Service agents and transported in a large black SUV. He has already become, in everything but title, the most powerful Republican leader in the country.
Compare Romney’s recent arrival to his stump stop for Bennett in May 2010, when he was still a private citizen mulling a presidential run. At the time, Romney was a significant figure in Utah politics, due to his stature as a prominent national Mormon politician, but he was far from being the party’s nominee, a presidential candidate with a real shot at winning the White House.
Hatch has taken advantage of Romney’s rise. “Utah Republicans are absolutely convinced that Romney is going to be the next president of the United States,” says one GOP insider. Hatch’s alliance with him “makes a real difference.” Romney’s campaign retreat in Park City, Utah, over the past weekend reinforced his connection to the state where he once managed the Olympic Games.
Romney’s relationship with Hatch goes back years, and Hatch cemented the bond four years ago when he endorsed Romney during the GOP presidential primary. Hatch now serves as a “special adviser” to Romney’s campaign, and Romney continues to cut ads for Hatch. That support has blunted Liljenquist’s conservative critique, since he is also, in his own words, a “huge Romney supporter.”
Hatch’s campaign operation has been unusual, says his campaign manager Dave Hansen, but it has been effective. Early on, Hatch privately advised Hansen to eschew the usual reelection model for an incumbent — volunteer outreach, fundraising receptions, etc. Instead, Hansen says, Hatch asked him to come up with a strategy to win a majority of delegates at the convention.
Bennett didn’t lose his seat because he was unpopular throughout the state — politically, Utah is colored deep red. He lost because he didn’t have a floor strategy at the caucuses. “If the senator was going to win, we needed to change the composition of the delegates,” Hansen says. “We implemented an aggressive and expensive program to put Hatch supporters in those positions.”
“It’s not magic,” Hansen says. “We went through lists of people throughout the state, looking for recruits, and we spent a lot of money on a staff that took the time to do it.” The delegate search went on for over a year. By the time the caucuses opened this spring, Hatch had supporters in positions of power on the convention floor, and Liljenquist’s hope for a sweep was dashed.
“I saw this movement coming before Senator Bennett did,” Hatch told me during an interview in his Capitol Hill office last month. “A year before the Bennett race, I invited David Kirkham, a Utah tea-party leader and an outstanding man, to meet with me in my office. I spent two and a half hours with him.” And from Kirkham to the delegates, Hatch built a tea-infused coalition.
(Lack of) debates
Throughout the primary, Hatch has been a disciplined and cagey campaigner. He has not said anything that could be construed as a gaffe, or used to split his fragile support among Utah conservatives. He has coasted through the campaign — mostly avoiding any face-to-face interaction with Liljenquist, who has spent far smaller sums than Hatch on statewide television and radio spots.
In trying to make an issue of Hatch’s debate dodge, Liljenquist supporters took some extreme measures. McKay Christensen, a Liljenquist volunteer, made headlines in May for going on a “hunger strike” against Hatch until he caved. Liljenquist didn’t condone Christensen’s stunt, but he came up with his own: He playfully debated a cardboard cutout of Hatch on the trail.
But those potshots didn’t scratch Hatch’s poll numbers, and he never agreed to a series of debates. Since the caucuses, Hatch and Liljenquist have met only once — at a KSL radio debate in mid-June — and the fireworks during that exchange were few and far between. When Liljenquist accused Hatch of avoiding direct confrontations, he shrugged off the barb. “Oh, give me a break,” Hatch said, scowling. “I’ve debated the most important people in politics.”
By only debating Liljenquist on the radio, Hatch avoided having some mistake become a YouTube moment — there was no viral fodder for his tea-party critics. He also avoided the prospect of newspapers running front-page pictures of the much younger Liljenquist at a podium beside a septuagenarian incumbent. Liljenquist got in a few solid quips — “no senator is too big to fail” — but he did not catch fire. Hatch, as he has all year, escaped unscathed.
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.