Is Hatch next in line for a pink slip?
Utah Republicans dumped Rep. Chris Cannon in 2008, jettisoned Sen. Bob Bennett on Saturday and may have their sights fixed on Sen. Orrin Hatch in 2012.
In a state where Republicans once could count their first election as a lifetime appointment, the latest trend is troubling for Utah's longest-serving U.S. senator in seeking a seventh term.
In fact, more than half of Utah voters say they would elect someone other than Hatch if he were up for re-election this year, according to a recent Salt Lake
Tribune poll, while 35 percent would support him. Among this year's delegates to the GOP state convention, the numbers are even worse for Hatch: 71 percent would back another candidate over him, the poll shows.
For his part, Bennett, whom delegates booted, still held a commanding lead, according to the paper's pre-convention survey, over the eventual Democratic nominee, Sam Granato, 55 percent to 27 percent.
State Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper, said Bennett's ouster sets the stage for a field of challengers against Hatch in two years.
"There is voter fatigue with people who have been in Washington a long time," Hughes said. "The votes [Saturday] show the delegates and voters are looking for a new guard."
It won't be the first time Hatch has had to woo conservatives, who often dominate Utah's nominating process.
"Senator Hatch has always run into delegates at the convention that have opposed him," says Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor at the Washington-based Cook Political Report . "I assume in this kind of environment that number is significantly higher. The real question is how will the environment look like two years from now?"
The political landscape Hatch needs: a churning economy, a Republican renaissance and, most important, a less vocal anti-incumbent, anti-Washington fervor. Meanwhile, he will need to spend a lot of time and money convincing Utah conservatives that he has not drunk the Potomac Kool-Aid.
The good news for Utah's senior senator: He has $2.2 million in his campaign account and a nice head start.
LaVarr Webb, a Utah political consultant and GOP delegate, said he got an invitation last week to participate in a telephone town hall just days after a Tribune poll showed delegates would have bounced Hatch if he were up for election this year.
"I definitely think that he is concerned about his re-election," Webb says. "He is making a real attempt to connect."
In previous re-elections, Hatch's smallest margin of victory was a landslide 17 percentage points, and that was 1982. In his most recent contest, in 2006, Hatch smoked his Democratic foe by 31 percentage points.
But the real question rests in what delegates think, and Utah politicos undoubtedly recall Hatch, along with then-Gov. Mike Leavitt, drawing jeers and boos at the GOP state convention a decade ago. Leavitt was forced into a primary that year and Hatch narrowly escaped a runoff.
While Saturday's convention focused mainly on Bennett, Hatch didn't escape criticism either.
Ken Cromar carried a handmade sign through the halls asking, "What do you call a senator who's been in Washington 33 years? You call him home," parroting a line Hatch used to oust then-Democratic Sen. Frank Moss in 1976.
"We're calling Senator Hatch home," Cromar said. "Senator Hatch and Senator Bennett have both gone along with the drip, drip, drip of compromise" against the Constitution.
Hatch's path in 2012 may not be clear. Several Utah politicians -- including Rep. Jason Chaffetz, who packs an 82 percent favorable rating among this year's GOP delegates -- have left open the prospect of an intraparty challenger.
Hatch reported he shook more than a thousand hands Saturday and only one person said he had issues with Hatch.
"Naturally, we're concerned," Hatch said. "We're doing a lot of things; we've done a lot of things. We're not sitting back and acting like nothing bad can happen." And he has a warning for any future challengers: "If anyone decides to run against me, they're going to find a real tough go."
J. Brad Coker, managing director of Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, The Tribune's pollster, says Hatch's numbers shouldn't be so bad in 2012.
"He may still face a challenge," Coker says, "but I think he'll be in better shape to deal with it than Bennett."
Conservatives are fired up this year, he notes, and looking for someone to blame.
"In Utah, there's really no Democrat to fire at," Coker says. "If you've got no Democrats to shoot at, you start shooting at Republicans."
In that case, Hatch should be thankful for one thing: also up for re-election in 2012 is President Barack Obama. He gets favorable ratings from just 30 percent of Utah voters in The
Tribune poll and, among Republicans, 73 percent view him unfavorably.
If Sen. Orrin Hatch were up for re-election this year, would you be inclined to vote for him or would you vote for someone else?