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Sens. Hatch, Lugar and Snowe haven’t been hit too hard by tea-party, yet

at 11:47 AM ET, 08/24/2011


Utah Senator Orrin Hatch has been reaching out to tea party activists. (August Miller - FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
In a few 2012 Senate races, tea- party challenges seemed almost inevitable. Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe (R), Virginia Senate candidate George Allen(R), Indiana Sen. Dick Lugar (R), and Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) were all expected to face tough competition on the right. But so far, serious challenges in all three races have failed to materialize.

Maybe it’s a case of tea-party groups firing too early. Some of these incumbents have been targets since before last fall’s election. That’s given them plenty of time to react. They also know to take these challenges seriously, because they saw firsthand the damage wrought by similar primary challenges in 2010.

“ If there is one silver lining to the disastrous nominations of candidates like [Delaware Senate nominee] Christine O’Donnell (R) last cycle, it’s that no one, and particularly incumbents, are taking anything for granted,” said a senior Republican strategist.

O’Donnell came from seemingly nowehere to beat then-Rep. Mike Castle (R)in the 2010 Senate primary to permanently replace now-Vice President Joe Biden; she then lost to now-Sen. Chris Coons (D).

In Utah, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R) announced Tuesday afternoon that he would not challenge Hatch in 2012. Chaffetz had been hinting at a bid for months and had the support of the Club for Growth.

The surprise decision came, Utah Republicans say, largely because Hatch successfully blocked Chaffetz from raising money. Hatch was also working to elect new convention delegates who backed the senator.

“We’re still very early in the process,” said Russ Walker, the national political director of the conservative non-profit FreedomWorks. The group was an influential player in the 2010 primaries and is still bullish on the races in Utah and Indiana.

“People are really anxious this year and are expecting a lot really early.”

In Utah, a candidate can avoid a primary by securing 60 percent of delegates at a pre-primary convention of GOP delegates. In 2010, now-Sen. Mike Lee (R) beat Sen. Bob Bennet (R) at the party convention and went on to win a primary with businessman Tim Bridgewater and the general election.

Hatch is “a different type of candidate than [former Sen.] Bob Bennet was,” said Utah Republican strategist Jeff Hartley. “He’s been very agressive and shown that he intends to fight.”

In Virginia, tea-party candidate Jamie Radtke (R) has failed to get off-the-ground, at least on the fundraising front. Former Sen. Allen has successfully moved to the right — he opposed the debt-limit deal recently passed by Congress — making it harder for her to attack, at least on that front.

“Sen. Allen is doing a good job to convince people he’s never crossed the 14th Street bridge” into Washington, said Radtke campaign manager Dave Johnson.

FreedomWork’s Walker said that tea partiers aren’t willing to “risk losing the Virgina Senate race" by backing a weak candidate in Radtke.

In Maine, tea-partier Scott D’Amboise has gotten attention mostly for off-the-wall quotes and antics — for example, saying he doesn’t believe President Obama is a Christian and demanding Snowe resign.

But those kinds of headlines likely won’t play well in Maine, and like Radtke, D’Amboise has struggled to raise money: he collected $117,394 during the second quarter while Snowe gathered over $1 million.

Another Maine tea partier, Andrew Ian Dodge is even more of a long-shot as an all-black-wearing music columnist, novelist and self-described ”cyber-punk.”

Meanwhile, Snowe has been touting her fiscal discipline and co-authoring a constitutional amendment with Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), a tea-party favorite.

Walker said that FreedomWorks doesn’t expect a serious challenger to emerge against Snowe, despite the fact that she has been a top target of some tea-party groups.

“We dont think there's going to be a challenger in Maine whose a legitimate challenger,” Walker said on Wednesday.

In Indiana, state Treasurer Richard Mourdock is challenging Sen. Lugar (R), who should be vulnerable to a challenge from the right. A partisan Club for Growth poll shows the two tied for support, while an internal Lugar poll showed him with a 14-point edge but below 50 percent.

But Mourdock has posted lackluster fundraising numbers: $300,000 in the second quarter to Lugar’s $907,000. His campaign manager got into an angry confrontation with a conservative blogger in June. The Club for Growth has yet to endorse Mourdock, which could help equalize his fundraising numbers. “His fundraising needs to improve,” the group’s president told National Journal last month.

Another tea party-backed Republican, state Sen. Mike Delph, might get into the primary against Lugar too, a move that would likely divide anti-Lugar voters.

So, as of now, we can say that tea-party targets are looking stronger than may have been expected given the strength of the movement in 2010.

But we report that news with a huge caveat: At this point in 2009, O’Donnell and Sharron Angle, who challenged Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and lost by six points, weren’t serious contenders either. Stronger challengers could also emerge in any of these races.

“We’re still very early in the process,” said Russ Walker, the northwest director of the conservative non-profit FreedomWorks. The group was an influential player in the 2010 primaries and is still bullish on the races in Utah and Indiana. “People are really anxious this year and are expecting a lot really early.”

For now, though, it looks like these vulnerable Republicans have learned something from 2010.

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