J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, at the U.S. Capitol on March 15, 2012.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, at the U.S. Capitol on March 15, 2012. J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Utah Republican Orrin Hatch has spent 36 years in the U.S. Senate, including stints as chairman of the Judiciary and Labor committees. He's in line to become chairman of the Finance Committee if Republicans gain control of the Senate in November.
But back home in Utah, Hatch's quest for a seventh term is not the cakewalk he had in the last five elections, in which he didn't even have to run in primaries.
In fact, the Hatch campaign has spent more than $5.7 million in the past 15 months just to make sure he'll survive the Utah Republican nominating convention on April 21.
"We've got to have new leaders in Washington if we're going to change the direction of this country," says Dan Liljenquist, a former Utah state senator and business consultant, considered the biggest threat to Hatch among nine GOP challengers.
"And the folks who led us into this mess are not the guys to get us out of it," adds Liljenquist, who was just 2 years old when Hatch was first elected to the Senate.
Throw Them All Out
That anti-incumbent sentiment lingers in Utah from the 2010 state Republican convention, when delegates ousted three-term Sen. Robert Bennett.
"The desire to lash out against incumbents — they're all corrupt, they're all stupid, they've all been there too long, throw them all out — that was the overwhelming emotion in 2010," Bennett recalls. "It was on the blogs. It was on Glenn Beck. It was on Rush Limbaugh — everywhere."
Bennett was accused by other Republicans of not being conservative enough because he voted for bank and corporate bailouts, the Toxic Assets Relief Program and other measures opposed by Tea Party groups and others.
The same forces are now targeting Hatch, including FreedomWorks, a superPAC that has spent more than $670,000 attacking Utah's senior senator.
"He's been there a long time, and with that length in service comes a lengthy record of expanding the scope and size of government," says Russ Walker, the national political director at FreedomWorks.
The group focused on anti-Hatch radio and TV ads and mailers in the months leading up to the state's 2,000 neighborhood caucuses on March 15.
"Utahns thought we sent a conservative to Washington," an announcer in one ad eerily intones. "But Orrin Hatch has risked your children's future by voting to raise our nation's debt limit 16 times. Orrin Hatch gave away your family's money for bailouts for Wall Street bankers."
Actually, FreedomWorks criticizes Hatch for some of the same votes cast by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, a Republican from Texas, the group's chairman.
The Former Boxer Fights Back
"These people are not conservatives. They're not Republicans," Hatch angrily responds. "They're radical libertarians and I'm doggone offended by it."
Then Hatch, a former boxer, turns combative. "I despise these people, and I'm not the guy you come in and dump on without getting punched in the mouth."
But Hatch responded with fistfuls of cash instead of fisticuffs, hiring a full-time staff of 20, which first focused on the neighborhood caucuses and is now wooing, one by one, the 3,936 state convention delegates elected caucus night.
They wield enormous power in Utah's Republican nominating process. No candidate gets on the ballot — for the primary or general election — unless the delegates put him there. A candidate with 60 percent or more of the convention vote becomes the party nominee and avoids the June 26 primary.
"A year ago, people were saying that [Hatch] is not going to be able to survive the convention," recalls campaign manager Dave Hansen. "Now they're talking about if he's able to get the 60 percent to avoid a primary."
A Door-To-Door Defense
The difference came with the intense focus on the neighborhood caucuses. The Hatch campaign worked to identify delegate candidates in every precinct in the state, and then worked to boost turnout in those precincts. The goal was to keep Tea Party activists, strict constitutionalists and single-issue advocates from dominating the caucuses as they had in the past.
"If they were the same delegates it was going to be very difficult to get [Hatch] re-elected," Hansen says.
Then, a month before the caucuses, the top leadership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints issued a letter to be read in every Mormon congregation in Utah.
"They are best served by a broad representation of Utah citizens," the letter said, referring to Democratic and Republican caucuses. "Those who attend play a critical role in selecting candidates for public office."
On caucus night, turnout was at least twice what it was in 2010, with more than 130,000 people attending, according to state Republican officials.
"Two years ago, there were about 15 people at my caucus," says Janna Richens, a graphic designer in West Jordan, Utah, and a state convention delegate. "This year, there were about 130 people at my caucus [and] probably 90 percent of them had never gone to a caucus before."
Hatch sees opportunity in the new convention delegates elected by the caucus newcomers. He and his challengers are reaching out to each and every one of them with phone calls, emails, mailers and invitations to town hall meetings, free restaurant meals and other events.
"They are relentless," says Marvin Haney, a delegate from Morgan, Utah, who owns a gift and apparel shop. "It's a contact sport almost. Continuous contact."
Hatch says it's all necessary.
"You need to let them know that you care," Hatch says. "You need to answer their questions. You need to let them know that they're very important people in your life."
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, is shown in 1977 in Washington, D.C. In background is Rep. John Erlenborn, R-Ill.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, is shown in 1977 in Washington, D.C. In background is Rep. John Erlenborn, R-Ill. AP
Experience As A Plus
Both Hatch and Liljenquist agree on most issues, and both say that seniority is the biggest one.
"This race all comes down to that question, whether or not seniority is so important people feel forced to vote for the same people in the same system that they all complain about," Liljenquist says.
Hatch counters with a boxer's combativeness.
"You need tough old birds just like me," Hatch says, "who everybody knows and hopefully respects, who will say, 'That's enough! We're not taking any more of this crap!' "
And Hatch unabashedly plays the "M" card, as in Mitt Romney, the fellow Mormon and Republican presidential candidate who is the most popular politician in Mormon-dominated Utah.
"I believe that we can help save this country, especially if Mitt Romney gets there and I'm chairman of the Finance Committee and we have other Republican chairmen in both the Senate and the House," Hatch asserts. "I believe we can turn this country around."
In a recent debate, Hatch dropped Romney's name nine times. And Romney, the former CEO of the Salt Lake City Olympics, urges delegates in robo-calls to support Hatch.
Liljenquist gamely tries to strike back with his own more fleeting connection to Romney.
"I'm trained in the same way," Liljenquist suggests. "I have a law degree like Mitt does. I worked at Bain [& Co.] like Mitt has. I turned around companies like Mitt has."
Hatch and his campaign staff are confident the senator will survive the April 21 convention for his first primary election in 34 years. As of last week, Hatch had $3.24 million in cash on hand for the campaigning ahead.
FreedomWorks isn't the only outside group pouring money into Utah, both for and against Hatch. But Hatch has outspent them all by roughly 6 to 1.
Liljenquist has funneled $300,000 of his own money into the contest, but he is likely to attract significant anti-Hatch support if he and Hatch are primary opponents.