If Sen. Orrin Hatch wants to win a seventh term, he not only has to fend off Republican challengers like Dan Liljenquist, but also a national tea party group that's running its own campaign to end his career.
FreedomWorks for America, a so-called "super PAC" (political action committee), has now spent $75,000 pressing the case that Utah's longest-serving senator is not conservative enough and its organizers say much more is yet to come.
"We are ramping up our level of activity," said Russ Walker, who runs the super PAC. "I think I'm going to be in Utah quite a bit in the next four months; it is a big priority for us."
Super PACs, which can take donations of any amount from individuals, corporations and unions, sprang from a 2010 Supreme Court ruling and have dominated the campaign landscape during the Republican presidential contest and in some state-level races.
They allow supporters of the candidate to raise big money fast, and produce ads with a layer of distance from the candidate they support, such as the attack ads a pro-Mitt Romney super PAC leveled at Newt Gingrich in Iowa.
FreedomWorks for America will essentially run its own "retire Hatch" drive separate from the campaigns of challengers Liljenquist, a former state senator, and state Rep. Chris Herrod, who is expected to enter the race Friday.
In a federal filing released Wednesday, the group disclosed it has spent $32,000 opposing Hatch in the past month, which paid for a poll, online ads and on-the-ground staff. That's on top of $43,000 spent since November.
In the coming weeks, a super PAC that supports Hatch may join the fight.
Kelly Casaday, owner of Letter 23, a Salt Lake City-based advertising agency, created Strong Utah PAC to bolster Hatch's campaign. He said he has about $12,000 in contributions so far. If he raises the necessary funds, Casaday's plan is to produce radio and TV ads encouraging Republicans to go to their caucus meetings.
"We'll let people know the good things Orrin Hatch has done for Utah and explain that he is a leading conservative voice in the United States Senate," Casaday said.
Walker said FreedomWorks for America plans to target its ads, either direct mail or online ads, to Republican activists involved in the state's convention process. It also will try to recruit people to attend their neighborhood caucus meetings in March, through a series of volunteer workshops in the coming weeks.
At those caucus meetings, Republicans will elect delegates to the all-important state Republican Convention. If a candidate gets 60 percent of the delegate support, he will be the nominee. If not, the top two square off in a primary.
FreedomWorks for America is affiliated with FreedomWorks, the conservative tea party organization that recently honored Liljenquist as its "legislative entrepreneur of the year," though the group is not prepared to endorse a candidate at this time.
"We think it's time for people to find someone new, a different alternative to Orrin Hatch that meets the needs of Utah and that may or may not be Dan Liljenquist," Walker said.
Hatch's campaign manager Dave Hansen has questioned whether Liljenquist is as conservative as the senator and has sought to tie him to FreedomWorks whenever possible.
"What Dan is trying to do right now is make himself accessible to FreedomWorks in hopes that out-of-state group ... will provide him the funds he needs for the campaign," Hansen said.
Liljenquist said he is not seeking FreedomWorks' endorsement, though he expects outside groups to be active in the race. As for Hansen's jab, he said: "The Hatch campaign is entitled to think whatever it wants to think. â¦ I can't control what other people do, I'm just going to work on my message."
Herrod said it is unfortunate that elections cost so much, but he said in America, people have the right to spend their money to defeat someone they disagree with.
"I think it is a counterbalancing force to all the money Senator Hatch has," he said, referring to the $4 million Hatch has reported in his campaign account.