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For GOP, It’s Hatch Calling

At 74 and after more than three decades in the Senate, Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) insists he doesn’t have his eye on any of his party’s coveted leadership positions. He isn’t looking to curry favor with Senators in his Conference. Nor is Hatch — while at times a bipartisan deal broker — looking to prove his party loyalties.

So why is Hatch spending nearly all of his free time these days raising money on behalf of the cash-strapped National Republican Senatorial Committee?

To put it simply, it comes down to mathematics. Sure, Hatch wants to try to catapult his party back into the majority, but barring that improbability, he said he’s on a personal mission to trip up Democratic efforts to expand their 51 seats to a filibuster-proof, 60-vote margin — a threshold that could all but sideline any influence of the GOP minority.

“I’m going to try to stop them from doing it — it would be disastrous for our country,” Hatch said.

Hatch has raised about $3 million for the NRSC this cycle, $1.5 million more than any other rank-and-file lawmaker and second only to the NRSC’s chairman, Sen. John Ensign (Nev.), who has brought in close to $6.5 million and whose job it is to solicit campaign contributions for the GOP. Ensign was so impressed with Hatch’s fundraising that last month he tapped his Utah colleague to chair the NRSC’s largest annual money event, the President’s Dinner, to be held on June 18.

“This is important,” Hatch said in a recent interview. “I’ve always raised a considerable amount for the NRSC, but look, I’m watching John Ensign busting his can to try to help our Republican Senate, and I’m disappointed he hasn’t had more support.

“I want to set an example so anyone who doesn’t have that attitude, will.”

With that in mind, Hatch will issue a call to arms to his fellow Senators during today’s policy luncheon at the NRSC headquarters, urging them to help him meet a $12 million target in advance of the President’s Dinner. He said he plans to drive home the point at the lunch that “this is about the balance in the Senate. It’s extremely important that we have enough votes to prevent them from getting 60 on truly heinous legislation. There are some really bad bills that they have promised their people.

“I want our colleagues to wake up and help John out,” Hatch added. “He can’t do it all by himself. Darn few Republican Senators are giving the help they need to give.”

It’s no secret that Ensign has struggled all cycle to persuade his fellow Senators to contribute directly from their campaign accounts, or to even make calls to donors on the NRSC’s behalf. The situation is particularly troublesome in a cycle that puts 23 GOP-held seats in play, versus just 12 Democratic slots.

What’s more, only one of those Democratic-held seats — that of Sen. Mary Landrieu (La.) — is considered vulnerable to a GOP pickup in 2008. The Republicans are wrestling with the reality that as many as seven of their seats could fall to the Democrats this year.

Ensign said in an interview Monday that Hatch’s efforts have been invaluable, noting that Hatch not only has raised record amounts of money on behalf of the NRSC but also has put pressure on other Senators to do their part. He said Hatch, in showing that even in his seniority he is willing to make party fundraising a priority, “has been an inspiration to others and literally kind of shamed them into making calls.

“I’ve been asking folks [to help] for a long time,” Ensign said. “Once he started, there was no stopping him. He’s a machine. He’s definitely a secret weapon.”

Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), GOP Conference chairman and former chair of the President’s Dinner, said Hatch was “so far ahead in the most valuable player voting, no one is going to catch him. To have such a senior Member so energetic and so enthusiastic is setting a wonderful example for other Members.”

With the bleak 2008 political landscape, Hatch said he’s particularly worried that fiscal conservatism could fall by the wayside under stronger Democratic margins, a scenario that he fears would instead make way for the agenda of labor unions, environmentalists and trial lawyers. He argued that business interests — which have increased their giving to the Democrats since they won the majority in 2006 — are “sowing the seeds of their own destruction.”

“I’ve carried so many battles — legitimate battles — for the business community and yet I don’t understand why they would support them to the extent that they are,” he said, tipping his hat to Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.), whom he described as “indefatigable” when it comes to fundraising.

“I don’t have any motivation other than I really believe in what I am doing to try to lead this fight to keep the free market system alive for years,” Hatch said.

Fiscal conservatism is one of Hatch’s hallmarks, as is his ardent defense of a now unpopular Bush administration and its policies. Hatch came to the defense of the president even at his lowest points, such as during heightened bloodshed in Iraq or when even many in his own party were calling for the resignation of then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

Yet, Hatch isn’t always in lock step with the GOP. He’s shown a willingness to cut bipartisan deals on issues such as expanding a children’s health insurance program and giving the District of Columbia a voting seat in Congress. Hatch has also joined a group of Democrats and Republicans supporting federal funding of stem-cell research, an issue that has at times roiled his party’s conservative base.

Hatch’s enthusiasm for fundraising baffles some in the GOP leadership. He isn’t up for re-election until 2012, and the only plum in his sights could be to take over as the top Republican Senator on the powerful Finance Committee in 2010 — with the gavel resting on a GOP majority.

Still, a Republican leadership source said Hatch’s interests seem far from selfish, saying: “I can’t determine for any other reason than he’s deathly afraid of what happens if we lose a few more seats and the Democrats get somewhere close to that 60 mark. … I think he’s tired of being in the minority and sees that we could be there for a while if we don’t do well this election cycle.

“I don’t think it’s any more complicated than that.”

Hatch admits there have been a few trade-offs to making so many fundraising calls in recent months. He’s had to put off his song writing to make time for donor calls, and even spent time recovering from the flu and part of his birthday two weeks ago calling contributors. He also devoted a good share of his recess at the NRSC soliciting money.

The NRSC estimates that Hatch has single-handedly called more than 300 prospective majority makers, or those contributors capable of giving more than $25,000 apiece. Hatch, along with Ensign, has even called potential big-ticket contributors on behalf of other Senators, who don’t want to make the calls themselves to home-state donors. More recently, Hatch also has started calling on key political action committee contributors, saying that in the past two weeks alone he’s at least left messages for “every PAC that hasn’t given.”

“I’ve called hundreds of people,” he said. “A lot of people aren’t there, but if they don’t call me back, I’m going to call them again.”

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