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

By Philip Rucker
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."

No one would mistake Hatch, a devout Mormon, for a liberal; he voted to reject and later repeal the nation's new health-care law, opposes same-sex marriage and has been tough on unions. In 2010, the American Conservative Union gave him a 100 percent rating.

Yet the tea partyers are skeptical because of Hatch's penchant for working with Democrats and his decades-long friendship with the late senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). They especially despise that vote for the Troubled Assets Relief Program, or TARP. Many of them see him as too old and too Washington. They simply want to see him gone.

"I hounded Bennett and made sure everybody knew about his voting record" on the bank bailouts, said Lynn Williams, 64, a GOP delegate. "I'm going to do the same thing to Hatch."

And so it is that, at 76, Hatch, one of the most influential conservative voices in Washington, now spends his days and nights trying to prove that he is not a traitor to the cause - and to make sure the state's party apparatus ultimately bends to his will.

One of the people helping Hatch win over his tea party foes is Michelle Scharf, a midwife from Fruit Heights. She is one of the activists who worked to bring down Bennett, but this time around she is on Hatch's payroll.

"I don't agree with every bill he passed," Scharf said, "but I looked back over his career, and he truly is a constitutional conservative."

'B-52s will be circling'

Hatch spends a lot of time these days talking on the phone to a guy who doesn't much like him, but who might - just might - vote for him and persuade his many followers to do likewise.

His name is David Kirkham, and he builds custom luxury muscle cars in Provo. Oracle chief Larry Ellison bought one of them for about $1 million.

Kirkham founded the Utah Tea Party, and on April 15, 2009 - tax day - he staged a protest outside Hatch's office in Salt Lake City. Hatch had never heard of him. He later invited Kirkham in to find out why he was so mad.

"Orrin, do you know why I started the tea parties?" Kirkham recalled saying. "I started the tea parties because you voted for TARP. And I will do everything in my power to remove you from office."

Hatch cleared his afternoon appointments. The two mentalked for three hours. They followed up with a lot of phone calls. As the tea party gained momentum, Kirkham's group swelled to 10,000 members. The senator invited him to a skybox at a Brigham Young University football game. Last summer, he went to a picnic with Kirkham and other state tea party leaders.

Hatch sometimes rings Kirkham's iPhone three or more times a day, to hear his opinion on this or that piece of legislation or just to take his temperature. When Senate Republicans were moving toward banning earmarks, the long-protected practice of securing federal money for pet projects, Hatch called to get Kirkham's thoughts.

"I said: 'Orrin, if you vote for earmarks, you won't get it off of you. B-52s will be circling overhead, and you will be carpet-bombed,' " Kirkham recalled. "He said, 'Okay.' "

Hatch voted for the earmark moratorium. He would have voted the same way even if he hadn't talked to Kirkham, an aide said. But the call didn't hurt. Kirkham says he likes Hatch personally and likes the way he's been voting lately. But he's not ready to throw his support behind the senator.

'A true-blue conservative'

Last month, Hatch gave a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington. "I'm prepared to be the most hated man in this Godforsaken city in order to save this country," he said, testing out some of his new, testosterone-laced applause lines. (Still, some people in the crowd booed him for his TARP vote.)

Hatch, who usually reaches for loftier language, has expressed some unease with the coarser rhetoric that his audiences now expect. After using salty language to describe "Obamacare" at a recent town hall meeting, Hatch apologized repeatedly and vowed to "repent."

He is also visibly irritated by the purity requirements of the tea partyers he is working so hard to court.

"I'm a true-blue conservative," Hatch said in a two-hour interview in his Salt Lake City office. "But I think conservatism isn't just standing back and stopping everything. . . . With some of these people, if they have a flaw, it's that if you disagree with them on one thing, it's enough for them to want you out of office.

"Well, there's nobody that's going to agree with you on everything. There's nobody. And if you think there is, it shows that you're extreme."

Hatch described himself as a principled conservative but said, "You've got to recognize that people on the other side have feelings, that they have ideas, that they care for people also and that to get any substantial work done, you need to have the ability to bring both sides together."

What has made Hatch so successful by Washington standards is also what makes activists in Utah regard him as an apostate.

"He always reaches over the aisle," said Clark Roberts, 49, who founded the Weber County 9/12 Project, a Utah tea party group. "Why doesn't he lead and have people lean over the aisle to him?"

Vowing to deliver

Among the crowds at a series of Lincoln Day GOP fundraising dinners last month, it was hard to find anyone who didn't take a liking to Hatch. He's a great talker, and after more than three decades in office, he is a Utah institution.

"I will love that man for the rest of my life," said Anita Kersey, 67, whose granddaughter Hatch helped get a liver transplant.

But likability does not necessarily translate into convention votes, and Hatch has faced tough reelection challenges before. In his autobiography,"Square Peg," he recalls activists at the 2000 state GOP convention jeering him with "lusty, full-throated, enthusiastic boos." And this time, Hatch will probably face one or more opponents.

One possible challenger is Rep. Jason Chaffetz, who won his seat in 2008 by wresting the GOP nomination from an incumbent. Chaffetz is unsure he wants to give up his perch as one of the House's more prominent young conservatives. "I'm a definite maybe," he said in an interview.

But he sounds like a candidate. He repeatedly criticized Hatch as he ate a bowl of queso dip at a Chili's in his sprawling suburban district. Chaffetz, 43, marveled at the fact that he was 9 years old when Hatch was first elected, calling him "the senator who was swept in with Jimmy Carter."

Hatch tries not to engage his young critic. "We have a few people who are constantly chirping," he said.

Instead, he reminds every audience that if the Republicans win back the Senate in 2012, he is slated to chair the powerful Finance Committee, with jurisdiction over taxes and entitlement programs such as Social Security.

The other night, as a blizzard blew into the state, Hatch drove along a treacherous canyon road to reach Logan, where a few dozen likely GOP delegates were waiting.

He gave his spiel, about how he could deliver for the state in a way no newcomer could. The audience was polite but wary.

As the senator worked the crowd awhile, the snow was starting to pile up. He needed to head back. He looked over at Scharf, the tea party midwife who had come along to reassure the delegates that Hatch was one of them. Affixed to her shirt was the unofficial tea party symbol - a yellow Gadsden flag pin with a picture of a coiled rattlesnake over the words "Don't Tread on Me."

On his way to the door, the senator gave her some advice that he has surely given himself.

"Stay strong," he said. "Don't let them push you around."

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