Sen. Orrin Hatch, 78, chats before a campaign event, pauses, and says,“This race has not been fun. The attacks on me have been tough.”
Dan Liljenquist, Hatch’s challenger in Tuesday’s GOP primary — who was just one year old when Hatch was first elected 36 years ago — has an opposite view. After a radio debate with Hatch, he says. “That was fun … It’s clear from his responses that he struggles to justify many of his own votes.”
The race’s fun, or lack of it, centers on claims and rebuttals about whether Hatch has lately recast himself as more conservative than he really is.
Hatch insists he has always been a solid conservative, and says Utahns should reelect him because his seniority will bring him power to help Utah and cut federal spending.
Liljenquist, a former state senator, says Hatch has not voted like a conservative in recent years, creating programs without paying for them. He asserts that Washington has changed the senator and points out that in his first race, in 1976, Hatch said his opponent then had served too long — 18 years — or half the time Hatch has now been in office.
Their battle has affected more than a U.S. Senate seat from Utah. It has been shaking up the Utah GOP and the power of its right wing, and the way Utah races are financed and run.
After the tea party helped dump Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, two years ago at the state Republican convention, Hatch spent a record $10 million — which helped him recruit supporters to caucuses who elected more moderate state delegates. Not only did that allow Hatch to survive this year’s convention, it helped moderates defeat or force into primaries ultra conservatives in other races up and down the ballot.
The national conservative group FreedomWorks spent nearly $1 million against Hatch — more than the $614,000 that Liljenquist’s own campaign reported spending.
The primary race also has been different than it was leading up to the convention. With big leads in polls, Hatch has chosen to remain mostly in Washington, saying his Senate work prevented him from being in Utah for televised debates with Liljenquist.
But Hatch found time to be in Utah for photo-ops in separate events with backers Mitt Romney, Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo and Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso. Hatch has opted mostly for a massive advertising campaign to push his message — including a $1 million ad blitz just before the election.
Liljenquist, who is being outspent 10 to one, has held hundreds of events around the state, relying on volunteers going door-to-door and has used smaller media buys. He called for eight debates, as Hatch had in 1976, but Hatch agreed to only one, on the radio. So Liljenquist debated Hatch in absentia at one event — where he played videotapes of the senator that he said showed him flip-flopping on key issues through the years.
Hatch has been stressing his endorsement by Romney, who enjoys tremendous popularity in Utah, using the tagline in ads that it’s Utah’s time to lead — with Romney in the White House, and Hatch in the Senate — as chairman of the Finance Committee if the GOP can win majority control in November. Hatch says 60 percent of spending is overseen by that committee, and he and Romney could be in position to get spending under control.
Russ Walker, campaign manager for FreedomWorks, concedes that “the Romney factor” in Utah makes “it a little more difficult to take on Hatch” than it has been for that group to challenge senators elsewhere — including its work to help dump 36-year incumbent Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., last month.
Liljenquist tries to counter the Romney card by noting he started his career at Bain Consulting — a division of Bain Capital that was once run by the former Massachusetts governor — so he says he embraces a similar business philosophy.
Liljenquist says he can be effective as a freshman. He points to his history as a freshman state senator who enacted pension reform that has been copied elsewhere. Hatch says Liljenquist could do that because 75 percent of the Utah Legislature is Republican, a conservative advantage never approached in the nation’s capital.
Liljenquist dismisses Hatch’s claim that a Democratic majority with the assistance of some liberal Republicans have blocked a more conservative agenda in Congress. He points to Hatch’s votes in support of Medicare Part D and the Children’s Health Insurance Program.
Liljenquist asked during their sole primary debate if Hatch considers himself responsible in any way for the large national debt.
“Frankly, no,” said Hatch. “I’ve led the fight against the debt from day one and I’m offended that you keep bringing it up like I’m responsible for all the things that are wrong in America. How about a little of the things that are right, Dan? Am I responsible for those too? A lot of them, I am.”
Liljenquist said Hatch’s answer is telling.
“We’ve had a generation of people back there who will not take a single shred of responsibility for a single vote even though they voted multiple times to spend money we didn’t have.... We need new leaders in Washington who are determined to go and fix it. I am.”
Hatch and FreedomWorks have been conducting tracking polls in the race, although Liljenquist has not. While the sides do not disclose results publicly, Hatch’s campaign says he has a comfortable and consistent lead. FreedomWorks’ Walker says he sees “some tightening in the race, but we’ll have to see if it’s enough to overcome Hatch’s millions.”
In any case, putting pressure on Hatch has been worth it, said Walker. “Senator Hatch, win or lose, has had to become more conservative than ever in his 36 years.”
Dave Hansen, Hatch’s campaign manager, said such comments reveal the state of the race.
“When you start talking about moral victories,” Hansen said, “it must mean that you are behind.”