Updated: 1:28 p.m.
Activists and staff from FreedomWorks, the influential advocacy group led by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas), on Monday ordered the Senate Republican campaign arm to stay out of Sen. Orrin Hatch’s (R-Utah) re-election race in 2012.
One woman shouted “Grab your torches!” as dozens of conservative activists primarily from Utah piled out of the FreedomWorks office just two blocks north of the Capitol to march to the National Republican Senatorial Committee headquarters.
About 40 marchers from around the country — in Washington for FreedomWorks’ activist “boot camp” over the weekend — processed to the NRSC on Monday to tell the committee that its dollars should be spent elsewhere.
“I’m looking for candidates who are intellectually honest,” Darcy Van Orden, an activist from Salt Lake City, told a Roll Call reporter shadowing the march. Van Orden said she was very active in the defeat of Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) in 2010. “We will retire him with dignity. I’ll throw him a party myself,” she said.
Activists stood in the lobby of the NRSC chanting, “Orrin Hatch has got to go! People choose Senators, not committees!” They demanded a meeting from a visibly irritated NRSC aide. Eventually two activists were permitted to go up to the committee headquarters.
FreedomWorks has made defeating Hatch a top priority. The group complains the six-term Utah Republican has frequently sided with Democrats, and it doesn’t like his votes for the Troubled Asset Relief Program and to raise the debt ceiling. The race is one of 15 Senate contests the group will target in 2012, and other conservatives say booting Hatch in a party convention next year is a priority. That’s one reason he’s shifted to the right of late.
Hatch campaign manager Dave Hansen told Roll Call the march seemed like “nothing more than a carefully orchestrated attempt by an out-of-state interest group trying to gather attention for their cause.”
“Who will be Utah’s next Senator is a decision Utahns will make for the future of our state — not Texans, or people from Washington, D.C.,” he said. “At the end of the day, while FreedomWorks is putting time and effort into getting free press, our campaign team is in the field gathering support.”
NRSC spokesman Brian Walsh told Roll Call that the committee respects the activists’ views, but, he pointed out, “just as we respect the views of others who are strongly supporting Senator Hatch’s re-election, including Mark Levin and C. Boyden Gray, who is the co-chairman of the FreedomWorks Foundation Board.”
Walsh also noted that Hatch is vice chairman of the NRSC and lauded his role in trying to help the GOP win back Senate control. “Cornyn is proud to support him,” Walsh said, speaking about NRSC Chairman John Cornyn (Texas).
FreedomWorks is already mobilizing activists on the ground and throughout the country around the opportunity to pick up another seat for their wing of the Republican Party. The group is using the same strategy it employed to help oust Bennett, recognized as one of the first electoral casualties of the tea party movement.
Bennett was one of five candidates that received the NRSC’s maximum donation in 2010 — more than $42,000 — but it was not enough to beat back conservative challenger Mike Lee, who earned more support at the convention to advance to the general election. Lee is now the state’s junior Senator.
Activists argue that Hatch is not conservative enough for the emerging small-government Republican electorate, despite a near 90 percent lifetime vote rating from the American Conservative Union. Instead, they are looking to Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a two-term Congressman from the state’s 3rd district, who has repeatedly expressed interest in challenging Hatch.
At the state party’s convention earlier this month, FreedomWorks rented a booth featuring “Retire Hatch” signs. It plans to run TV and radio ads in the state encouraging its supporters to attend local caucuses next year and elect delegates to the convention who will vote Hatch out.
The NRSC policy is to support incumbents in all primary challenges. But given the committee’s support of more establishment types in open-seat GOP primaries, its backing might not help Hatch with a challenge from the grass roots.