Once Endangered, Orrin Hatch Battles Back in Utah

Posted March 19, 2012 at 6:19pm

Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch is expected to emerge from next month’s state party convention either with the nomination in hand or in a stronger primary position than most imagined just a few weeks ago.

This is a survival story, and overwhelming anecdotal evidence passed on by party insiders indicates the six-term incumbent reaped the benefits of unprecedented turnout at the 2,000 or so precinct caucuses held Thursday in classrooms and community spaces across the state.

Although exact numbers were not available, insiders said a good portion of the 4,000 delegates elected are likely to vote for Hatch at the convention, meaning, at the very least, he will survive until the June 26 primary. By Monday, the Hatch campaign was still poring over the list of delegates.

“As the information rolls in, it is looking more and more like Sen. Hatch will make it out of the convention,” Hatch spokeswoman Evelyn Call said. “The goal has always been to avoid a primary, and we are feeling more confident that achieving 60 percent of the state delegate votes at the state convention is in the realm of possibility.”

The convention delegate universe is often far more conservative than the primary electorate, putting the six-term incumbent with a lifetime rating of
90 percent with the American Conservative Union — but a penchant for deal-making — in potential trouble. Although Rep. Jason Chaffetz, Hatch’s top possible opponent, opted against running, former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist and state Rep. Chris Herrod made sure Hatch did not have a free ride to a seventh term.

However, fortunately for Hatch, several factors led this year’s caucuses to have an electorate that more closely resembled a primary.

Hatch’s campaign essentially began its work two years ago after hostile GOP activists happily dismissed Hatch’s former colleague Sen. Bob Bennett at the 2010 state party convention. Two others, including now-Sen. Mike Lee, emerged from the convention to face off in the primary.

“A surprise can really only happen once, and Bennett unfortunately was first in line,” said a Washington, D.C., lobbyist with Utah clients.

Hatch’s campaign was open from the beginning about its plan to elect its own slate of delegates and oust all others. It was an aggressive move that already put him ahead of the game relative to the surprise awaiting Bennett at the convention.

“The level of effort to get the regular Republican voter to their caucuses … and to stack those caucuses with Hatch people had never been equaled to this year’s effort,” said Jeff Hartley, a lobbyist and former Utah GOP executive director. “The money spent not only by Hatch but also by the state party is unprecedented, and it seemed to have worked.”

Another major factor cited by every Utah Republican that spoke with Roll Call was the effort by the Mormon Church to turn out voters.

“The biggest impact was the [Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints],” said GOP consultant LaVarr Webb, who was elected as a delegate without having to state which candidate he would support. “The church read a statement from the First Presidency in all of the local congregations, they canceled church meetings … and they really, really encouraged their members to turn out. My sense is that resulted in a lot more mainstream people participating.”

Kirk Jowers, director of the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics and a member of Mitt Romney’s finance team, said the difference between 2012 and 2010 was timing, voter outreach and Hatch building a campaign team that recognized that Thursday was the most important election.

On the timing aspect, the president’s health care law, which had cleared the Senate by one vote only a month before the 2010 GOP gathering, is now
2 years old. And earmarks, which dogged Bennett, who had served on the Appropriations Committee, were temporarily banned after the 2010 midterm elections, removing them as a possible political problem for Hatch at next month’s convention.

Like Bennett, Hatch supported the Troubled Asset Relief Program, but the issue that caused Bennett so much angst with Utah GOP activists is seen as less salient this time around. Meanwhile, Hatch appears to have gained traction with older voters with his message that his service as the top Republican on the Finance Committee is crucial to protecting Medicare and Social Security, one Utah Republican insider said.

The “Hatch machine,” this insider added, employed nearly three dozen full-time staff and was instrumental in bringing about a successful delegate election night.

Hatch needs just 40 percent to make it to the primary, and even FreedomWorks, the outside group that spent more than $600,000 to oust him, believes that Hatch is likely to survive the convention, though it is still working through the slowly emerging data.

“Hatch’s strategy was to turn the caucus into a primary or a general election, and I think it’s safe to say he at least turned it into a primary,” said Russ Walker, FreedomWorks vice president of political and grass-roots campaigns.

Walker said, however, that his group believes some of Hatch’s support is soft and at this time it plans to move forward working against him.

Indeed, delegates are not bound to any candidate and are notorious for veiling their support, and the convention vote is held by secret ballot, insiders said. Friday marked the start of the delegate-wooing process.

Liljenquist has already attended seven delegate events and has met with more than 100 delegates, and the team has called about 1,000 delegates. Liljenquist spokeswoman Holly Richardson said the campaign is “confident that we will make it through the convention on April 21.”

The Hatch campaign has also moved on to phase two, reaching out to the 4,000 delegates whether they’re supporting him or neutral.

“All of the campaigns will make a strong effort to meet with the delegates,” Webb said. “They’ll inundate them with mail; invite them to breakfasts and lunches and dinners; mostly meet in small groups; they’ll have surrogates contacting them. So the battle for the delegates really gets under way now.”