Republicans might hate Count My Vote, but it will save Orrin Hatch a bundle

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tribune columnist Paul Rolly.

Say what you want about controversial SB54, the compromise legislation passed a few years ago that provides alternative paths to the primary election ballot.

It ostensibly will save Orrin Hatch $3 million.

The drama/comedy surrounding Hatch’s yet-to-be-announced decision on whether he’ll run for an eighth term in the U.S. Senate next year could be called a Utah political version of Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First.”

Hatch recently said he would be willing to step aside if Mitt Romney was his replacement as the Republican candidate in 2018. Then Mitt Romney said he would be interested in running if Hatch did not go for another term. Then Hatch, in a story over the weekend, hinted that he may be leaning toward another run, despite what Romney said, claiming he is up to the job despite his age of 83.

Whatever he does, the Legislature, by allowing candidates to go through the party convention for the nomination, qualify for the primary ballot by gathering signatures, or both, has saved Hatch from himself.

You’ll recall that when Hatch was preparing to run for his seventh term in 2012, he was challenged for the Republican nomination by then-State Sen. Dan Liljenquist, and Hatch became nervous.

The defeat in the 2010 Republican convention of three-term Sen. Bob Bennett was fresh on Hatch’s mind.

Bennett was the victim of strong anti-incumbent fervor fed by the fledgling tea party movement.

Polls indicated that Bennett was still popular in Utah and had voters been able to vote for him in the GOP primary, he would have easily won the GOP nomination and gone on to be re-elected in the general election.

But he was eliminated in the convention, getting only 27 percent of the delegate vote, because the tea partiers had been well organized at the neighborhood caucuses where the delegates were elected. That sealed Bennett’s fate.

So when Hatch’s turn for re-election came up two years later, his campaign’s internal polling showed he had only 26 percent of the existing delegates on his side — one point lower than the ill-fated Bennett.

The only choice he had, in the minds of his campaign strategists, was to replace the existing delegates with pro-Hatch Republicans.

The campaign spent close to $3 million on surveys identifying Republicans who supported Hatch and on hiring additional staffers to make repeated phone calls to 85,000 folks identified as Hatch supporters statewide, to make sure they attended their neighborhood caucuses and elected pro-Hatch delegates.

The efforts paid off, according to Hatch’s campaign manager, Dave Hansen, and Hatch nearly eliminated Liljenquist at the convention, with 59 percent of the delegate vote. He then easily won the primary and general elections.

Now, with 15 months to go before the 2018 election and Hatch strongly hinting he will seek an eighth term, he’s keeping that $3 million in his campaign fund, feeling no need to spend the money on delegate recruitment.

Because of SB54.

Hatch, if he runs, will go to the convention and expect to win the nomination there, according to Hansen. But he also plans to gather the 28,000 signatures he needs to qualify for the primary ballot, whether he wins at the convention or not.

The $240,000 cost estimate for the signature gathering is a lot easier to digest than the $3 million quest for delegates, Hansen said.

One irony is that if and when Hatch goes the signature gathering route, the longest-serving Republican senator in U.S. history could be seen by some purists in the party’s base as not a real Republican — because GOP bylaws say the authentic Republican nominee is the one who goes through the caucus/convention system to win the support of the delegates.

Rocking the boat: One fallout from the Hatch strategy to organize and recruit his own delegates and precinct officers to secure his nomination in 2010 was a severe drop in attendance at the subsequent Republican State Central Committee meetings.

That’s because many of the newly elected delegates had only run to make sure Hatch was renominated. After that, they weren’t interested in the nuts-and-bolts business of the party’s bureaucracy. So they didn’t show up to those meetings and party leaders sometimes found it difficult to get a quorum.

Just another glitch in Utah’s peculiar political culture.