Washington • The chief strategist of one of the largest tea party groups says his organization won't go after Sen. Orrin Hatch in 2012 because the Utah Republican is an "original tea partyer."
Sal Russo, of the Tea Party Express, which helped drive support for several tea party candidates last year, told the conservative outlet National Review Online that Hatch isn't a target.
Not mentioned in the story was that Russo is a former campaign consultant for Hatch. He worked on the Utahn's long-shot 2000 presidential bid.
"He was an original tea partyer," Russo told the news outlet. "He has been talking about our issues from the beginning. Orrin is a [Ronald] Reagan conservative, as far as I'm concerned, and that's as good as it gets."
Russo said Hatch, who will be seeking his seventh term in the Senate, was instrumental in 1976 in standing up for Reagan and serving as his state chairman in running for the White House.
"[Hatch] is somebody who has been willing to stand up for a long time," Russo told National Review Online.
Russo could not be reached Thursday for comment.
Hatch, however, may still face challenges from the tea party.
Amy Kremer, listed as director of the grassroots Tea Party Express, said: "While Senator Orrin Hatch is certainly a very kind and decent man who is well-liked by his peers, he has also been a politician who has at times gone with the will of the entrenched political establishment instead of the will of the voters of his state. There is great excitement and energy amongst Utah tea party activists about the prospects for a constitutional conservative candidate to step forward and offer an alternative to Senator Hatch in 2012."
And, Brendan Steinhauser, director of federal and state campaigns for FreedomWorks, an umbrella group for many state parties, said "Utah is definitely one we're taking a hard look at. â¦ A lot of people there are talking about Hatch."
If the Tea Party Express group sticks to Russo's plan, Hatch's re-election effort may be able to overcome the anger that former Sen. Bob Bennett faced in trying for a fourth term last year. Tea party activists challenged Bennett and outside groups poured money into the state to oust him. He lost at the state convention to Tim Bridgewater and Mike Lee. The latter went on to win the Senate seat.
Hatch said Thursday he was "humbled" to get such kind words of support.
"Serving the people of the great state of Utah each and every day is my highest priority," Hatch said in a statement. "I won't ever take that privilege and honor for granted and will continue to work my hardest over the next two years to earn their support once again at the ballot box."
A poll of Republican delegates last year showed most of them would rather choose someone other than Hatch for the GOP Senate nomination; the same poll showed Rep. Jason Chaffetz with high marks from delegates.
Chaffetz, recently re-elected to a second U.S. House term, has said he might challenge Hatch for the Senate.