Just over a week after the caucuses to elect the roughly 4,000 delegates to the Utah’s Republican State Convention April 21, supporters of incumbent Sen. Orrin Hatch are not only breathing easier but exuding confidence. It appears as though supporters of the six-term senator not only won handsomely in the caucuses, but could actually reach the “magic 60 percent” — that is, about 2,500 delegates to the party conclave — needed to shut down chances of a primary by his opponent and ensure Hatch’s renomination by the Republican Party (which in Utah, is tantamount to election in the fall.)
“We feel very, very good and Freedomworks failed miserably,” Hatch campaign manager Dave Hansen told HUMAN EVENTS last week, referring to the national group headed by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) and loosely linked to the “tea party” movement. Freedomworks had been in the forefront of efforts to elect delegates favoring Hatch’s opponent, former State Sen. Dan Liljenquist.
Arguing that “it was time for a change” from Hatch at age 77 and after 36 years in the Senate, Liljenquist attempted to rally delegates by running to the veteran senator’s right. His specific criticisms were, in Hansen’s words, “the Freedomworks line” — that Hatch had sponsored the Dream Act (which many see as benefiting illegal aliens) and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), and had voted more than once to raise the debt ceiling.
No doubt helping to fuel the hopes of Liljenquist (and Freedomworks) was the fate of Utah’s other Republican senator at the time, Robert F. Bennett. Under fire for some non-conservative votes, three-termer Bennett was actually eliminated in the first round of voting at the state convention after his opponents successfully flooded the caucuses with their delegate candidates. (Bennett’s seat was eventually won by conservative swashbuckler Mike Lee).
But Hatch was different from Bennett. Campaign quarterback Hansen noted that the veteran senator took nothing for granted, that he spent considerable time at party events before the caucuses, and emphasized his conservative credentials on issues ranging from the pro-life movement to opposition to the two Obama Supreme Court nominees to the Balanced Budget Amendment (when White House Press Secretary Jay Carney last year dismissed a question from this reporter about the Balanced Budget Amendment by saying “it would be bad for the economy,” Hatch was among the first lawmakers to issue a statement upbraiding Carney and pointing out that 49 states have constitutional amendments requiring a balanced budget).
In many ways, Hatch in this campaign was very much like the way he was when he burst on the political scene as a first-time candidate in 1976. Then, with a rare pre-nomination endorsement from Ronald Reagan (whom he had backed for President over Gerald Ford that year), the young Hatch defeated the GOP establishment for the Senate nod and went on to unseat veteran Democratic Sen. Frank Moss. As senator, Hatch was “Roarin’ Orrin” — a spirited battler for conservative causes hailed by “New Right” titans such as Richard Viguerie and the late Paul Weyrich as the right kind of senator.
“The senator reminded people of what he had done and what he was doing now,” said Hansen, adding that Club for Growth and other national right-of-center groups stayed out of the race. Freedomworks, as Hansen put it, “was out there all alone and it showed.”
With less than a month to go before the state convention, signs are strong that Hatch will not only win at least half the vote but very possibly wrap up nomination without a primary. When Orrin Hatch announced for re-election, more than a few political junkies saw this race as a present-day version of The Last Hurrah — Edwin O’Connor’s timeless political novel in which Frank Skeffington, a big city mayor in his late ’70s, runs one more time and, caught up in a changing political time, loses his last race to a young opponent. With Hatch announcing that if re-elected this will be his last term, his campaign in 2012 is in fact The Last Hurrah — only in this saga, Skeffington wins.