In Utah, Sen. Hatch courts tea partyers one by one in quest for survival

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R), a top 2012 target for the tea party, is running for his seventh term in Utah by courting conservatives activists one by one.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 9, 2011; 12:47 AM

LOGAN, UTAH - Here's how you run for reelection if you're a powerful Republican senator from a state where powerful Republican activists want somebody new:

First you make friends with the man who builds custom roadsters.

Then you hire a midwife.

That's what Sen. Orrin G. Hatch has done in pursuit of a seventh term. The carmaker and the midwife are among the most influential of Utah's tea party organizers, who last year shocked the establishment by taking down veteran GOP Sen. Robert Bennet t in favor of tea partyer Mike Lee.

At the moment, they are two of the 3,500 voters who matter most to Hatch - the activists who are likely to select the GOP's 2012 Senate nominee at next year's state party convention. Whichever Republican they pick will almost certainly win election in this conservative state.

This is the great advantage that Hatch has in this fight that his former colleague did not: He knows who's coming for him.

"Unlike Bennett, Hatch will not be ambushed," said Russ Walker, national political director for FreedomWorks, the tea party group that targeted Bennett and is now working against Hatch. "He's no dum-dum. You don't hold a seat for 30-plus years and not know the game."

Hatch is trying to appeal to tea party activists by sharpening his anti-Washington tone. He was one of just nine senators to vote against a budget deal last week to avert a government shutdown, because he said the cuts it contained weren't deep enough. And he has apologized repeatedly for his 2008 vote in favor of the federal bank bailouts, a pass-fail test for conservative activists.

"You're not going to find a senator much more conservative than I am - unless they're not very effective," Hatch said in an interview, adding: "The other side knows I'm tough enough and I'm not going to cave into some [expletive] Democrat liberal crazy idea. It's just that simple."

The image makeover is just part of his plan. Hatch recognizes that he may not be able to win over all of his detractors. So he is trying to outmaneuver them.

GOP state convention delegates will be chosen in neighborhood caucuses next March, many of which are expected to be packed with tea partyers agitating to remove the senator from office. So Hatch has deployed a small army of field staffers to go neighborhood to neighborhood, identifying delegates who oppose him and recruiting supporters to run against them.

"If we don't like the way they're voting, we can pick a new voter," said Dave Hansen, Hatch's campaign manager. "There are some people who say you can't really ever stack the caucuses. Well, we're going to prove that it can be done."

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