Provo • Sen. Orrin Hatch says his 36 years in the Senate have finally put him in a position of power to make truly meaningful change. Democratic challenger Scott Howell says if the Utah Republican hasn’t made a difference by now, he never will — and electing a different senator is the real change needed.
The two pushed those points Wednesday in their only scheduled televised debate — where they repeatedly slapped each other, but politely. It was taped in the morning and will air later in the day, at 9 p.m. on KBYU Channel 11, KUED Channel 7 and KUEN Channel 9.
Some jabbing began before the debate as Howell greeted Hatch saying, “I’ve missed you — I’ve tried to find you,” referring to how he says the senator has been ducking debates. In earlier debates skipped by Hatch, Howell and minor-party candidates would debate an empty chair with a Hatch nameplate in front of it.
“We’ve been to all 29 counties and never found him, and finally did today,” Howell said after Wednesday’s debate.
The Democrat launched tougher attacks, saying Hatch has been in office too long.
“We continue to elect the very same people, and we wonder why we get the same results.... We need new blood,” he said. “We cannot perpetuate a seniority system that generates this 10 percent approval” rating of Congress.
Hatch countered by saying voters “already have term limits in the Constitution, and that’s the ballot box.” He said Utahns keep re-electing him — he is seeking a seventh term — because they believe he is effective.
If Republicans win control of the Senate in the upcoming election, Hatch is in line to become chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.
“It is the most powerful committee in Congress,” Hatch said. “If we’re going to solve the problems in this country, it’s going to be that committee that does that. ... That’s the reason I’m running again, the primary reason other than [helping] Mitt Romney.”
Hatch repeatedly aligned himself with the Republican presidential nominee — often enough that Howell said, “you can’t ride on the coattails of Governor Romney.”
Hatch didn’t waver. “I’ll just quote Mitt Romney. He said, ‘We need Orrin Hatch back in the Senate helping to lead the way.’ ”
At another point, Howell said, “sometimes I wonder if I am running against Mitt Romney or Orrin Hatch.”
And Hatch interrupted: “Both of us.”
Howell contended that Hatch moved far to the right to win tea party support this year, and that contributes to partisan gridlock.
“He’s gone so far hard right in order to win this election that he’s lost that collaborative spirit,” Howell said of Hatch’s one-time work with liberals such as the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. Howell added that as the former Democratic leader in the state Senate, he learned how to work with Republicans out of necessity to pass legislation.
Serving in the Utah Legislature is “quite different than being in Congress, by the way, especially in our Legislature,” Hatch said, adding that, if elected, Howell would be “surrounded by people” in the Democratic Party “who won’t let you be anything but liberal.”
At one point, Hatch pointed to his introduction of the DREAM Act — to allow undocumented immigrants brought as young children by their parents to America to attend college and work toward citizenship — as an example of how he cares about Latinos.
“He supported that at one time,”Howell said, “but now in order to secure the nomination of the Republicans he abandoned that.” Hatch said Democrats converted the DREAM Act into something he no longer could back.
When Howell attacked his opponent for voting for “two unfunded wars” that put the nation deeper in debt, it led Hatch to raise his voice with an emotional response.
“I believe when some group of people comes in and attacks our country and kills 3,000 people, we can’t sit back and say, ‘We can’t spend money on that.’ I don’t care what it costs,” he said. “Anybody who doesn’t believe that doesn’t deserve to sit in the U.S. Senate.”
Interestingly, Howell made numerous references to his LDS faith during the debate — in a state where polls show a majority of Mormons are Republicans. At one point he said that the United States should pull troops out of Afghanistan, and, “if we do anything, let’s send missionaries there. They could do a better job than what we’ve done in the military right now.”
Howell said after the debate that remark was “a little bit of levity” and added that efforts to convert Afghans to an American style of democracy and free enterprise have been unwise.