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Hatch Lets Loose His Inner Tea Party

Welcome to extreme makeover, the Sen. Orrin Hatch edition.

The Utah Republican — fearful that 3,500 locally elected grass-roots, state GOP delegates could boot him from office 10 months from now ­— has spent the past several months recasting his image in a bid for a seventh term. He’s shining a spotlight on his 34-year Senate voting record as a conservative stalwart while minimizing his penchant for bipartisan deal-making.

Former Sen. Bob Bennett was ousted in 2010, when a vote of Utah GOP convention delegates prevented him from advancing to the statewide primary ballot despite an 84 percent lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union. Cognizant of his precarious position with grass-roots Republicans and tea party activists in a way that Bennett was not, Hatch is determined not to let the same thing happen to him.

“I’m making an effort to emphasize [my conservative record] because for some reason, some of these outside groups don’t recognize all of the 35 years of conservatism I’ve done,” Hatch, 77, told Roll Call on Wednesday in a brief interview. “I voted over 12,000 times, and they pick an issue here, an issue there. Well, it would be surprising if you couldn’t find something you disagreed with, with that kind of voting record.”

Rep. Jason Chaffetz, 44, is threatening to primary Hatch in 2012 and is not bashful about his interest.

“It’s clear to me that Utah voters are going to be making a change in their Senate leadership,” the second-term Congressman told Roll Call. “I am leaning toward doing it. I’m likely to do it.”

Hatch appeared Wednesday at a Capitol Hill news conference alongside Sen. Mike Lee (Utah) — who was among the candidates to defeat Bennett at last year’s Utah GOP convention — as well as tea-party-favored Sens. Jim DeMint (S.C.); Rand Paul (Ky.) and Pat Toomey (Pa.), Rep. Ron Paul (Texas) and House Republican Study Committee Chairman Jim Jordan (Ohio), among others.

The Members were there to pledge opposition to increasing the debt ceiling unless Congress cuts spending, caps spending and approves a balanced budget amendment. The event was organized in part by conservative advocacy groups, including the Club for Growth and FreedomWorks, which oppose Hatch’s re-election bid. Chaffetz also has signed that pledge, but he did not attend the news conference.

Hatch holds a near 90 percent lifetime rating from the ACU. But past votes on the debt limit and the Troubled Asset Relief Program have motivated groups like those to search for candidates to oppose him at the April 21 convention next year. The Club for Growth even publicly called for Chaffetz to challenge Hatch.

Hatch has gone multimedia in his efforts to elevate his image with conservatives. He took to Twitter on Saturday, during the Utah GOP’s organizing convention, to align himself with anti-tax advocate Grover Norquist, whose pledge to not raise taxes is a staple in the party’s politics.

Hatch wrote an opinion piece in the Chicago Tribune on Tuesday to push for a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. He co-wrote the article with Tim Phillips, president of conservative Americans for Prosperity. Hatch last week earned backing from C. Boyden Gray, who served as White House counsel under President George. H.W. Bush and now sits on the board at FreedomWorks — which is actively working to upend Hatch’s re-election.

FreedomWorks rented a booth at last weekend’s state party convention that featured “Retire Hatch” signs. The group plans to run TV and radio ads in the state. It is already working at the grass-roots level to encourage its supporters to attend local caucuses next year and elect delegates to the convention who will vote out Hatch.

“The guys on the ground have done this once before,” said Brendan Steinhauser, director of FreedomWorks’ federal and state campaigns. “The difference is we can’t sneak up on Hatch like we did on Bennett.”

Hatch’s adjustment in political posture has been noticeable on Capitol Hill.

In the 1990s he collaborated with the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), known as the liberal lion, to create the State Children’s Health Insurance Program. In 2009 he briefly participated in a bipartisan gang attempting to reach a compromise on health care reform. But Hatch now more closely resembles the style of Republican he was in the 1980s, when he almost single-handedly killed a bill prioritized by organized labor in a chamber then dominated by the Democrats. 

One pro-Hatch Republican operative referred to him as “conservative before it was cool.” The operative noted that most political ads run by GOP primary candidates reference the late President Ronald Reagan, and said, “Hatch was there with Reagan in the trenches. He was a founding father of modern day Reagan conservatism.”

Hatch’s supporters point out that he has long been a supporter of the balanced budget amendment, coming within one vote of getting it through the Senate in the late 1990s. Hatch spokeswoman Antonia Ferrier acknowledged that the Senator has moved aggressively to inform voters about that part of his background.

But Ferrier rejects the notion that Hatch, ranking member on the powerful Finance Committee, has undergone a wholesale image change. She referenced the patent reform bill Hatch pushed through the Senate this year with Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa). “He’s still able to be effective,” she said.

A Senate Democratic aide lauded Hatch’s work on free trade, patents and tax reform. “Though he’s had to be more partisan than normal, he’s also worked well to move the ball forward in a bipartisan manner,” the aide said.

Hatch’s campaign is messaging the Senator’s legislative career to emphasize his conservatism over his bipartisanship. Besides fundraising, the Senator keeps a busy speaking schedule addressing groups, delegates and town halls. He spoke this winter at a Tea Party Express town hall and the Conservative Political Action Conference.

“The next part is that the campaign itself is going out and recruiting people to run not only as delegates, but also to attend the caucuses and support our candidates,” Hatch campaign manager Dave Hansen said in an interview.

The caucuses will be held March 15 in each of the 1,850 precincts in the state. One to three delegates will be elected from each precinct and be charged with voting at the April 21 state party convention. A candidate that gets 60 percent of the delegate vote wins the nomination. Otherwise the top two finishers face off in a primary.

“We have a field staff of 15 to 20 people that are working very hard with existing delegate lists, past delegate lists, party caucus attendees from the past and also recruiting from various organizations and business interests,” Hansen said. “We’re not trying to necessarily convert people. If they’re for us, great. If they’re not, we’re going to replace them.”

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