Over the weekend, former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon made some Utahns do a double take when it was reported that he plans to bring down several Republican senators, including Orrin Hatch.
It’s not clear, exactly, what it is that Hatch did to land himself in Bannon’s crosshairs. Indeed, it appears that it’s simply an effort by the former Breitbart News editor to refashion the entire U.S. Senate to reflect his own brand of alt-right conservatism.
Evidence of that is that, even if Hatch steps aside and Mitt Romney jumps into the race — as has been rumored for months — Romney, too, would be on Bannon’s hit list.
It’s not a short list. It already included Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, Nevada Sen. Dean Heller, Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker, and the new additions of Hatch, Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso and Nebraska Sen. Deb Fischer.
It is, in many ways, a fool’s crusade, as he attempts to exploit racial resentment, class warfare and xenophobia to elect a brand of misfits cut from the same cloth as the president whose administration Bannon had helped turn into a smoldering wreck before he walked away.
It also shows how far Bannon has departed from the Trump fold. He had already gone head-to-head with President Donald Trump, who supported Luther Strange in the Alabama Senate primary. Bannon backed Roy Moore, a twice-booted chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, who won the race by campaigning against the evils of homosexuality and the fake menace of Sharia law, and after he waved his gun around on stage at one event.
Trump has repeatedly asked Hatch, an ally on taxes and health care, to run for another term, which would, of course be the eighth for Utah’s senior — as in senior citizen — senator. Hatch had said when he ran last time that it would be his last campaign, but he is reconsidering and has even said he is leaning toward another bid.
But if Bannon came out on top in Alabama, then could Hatch be next? Well, if Hatch does take another shot next year and loses, it won’t be Bannon who can claim victory.
Hatch’s re-election numbers are really bad — probably some of the worst you’ll ever see for any candidate anywhere. A poll conducted for The Salt Lake Tribune in August found that 78 percent of Utahns want Hatch to retire.
But Hatch had terrible poll numbers six years ago, and still ended up crushed his Republican challenger and his Democratic opponent, winning 65 percent of the vote in the general election.
Through June, he had about $4 million in the bank — and don’t be surprised if he’s piled up a few million more when his campaign files its new report next week. Not that it matters. If Hatch runs, he’ll have more money than he could possibly spend.
And he won’t need as much of it. At this point six years ago he was already plowing through cash, trying make sure he survived the Republican nominating convention by surgically replacing delegates who opposed him with those who would be more favorable. It wasn’t cheap, costing nearly $6 million, but it worked. He made it to a primary that he won in a landslide.
This time, he won’t have to worry about all that. He can spend $1 million, gather signatures and go directly to the primary, where he will be able to focus his resources on an all-out campaign blitz against … well, that’s another problem.
By being coy about whether or not he’ll run, Hatch has kept potential challengers on the sideline. Ideally a challenger would have started campaigning months ago. If Bannon is able to recruit a candidate, there would be a mad scramble to put together a legitimate effort.
Right now, there’s no clear choice for a Bannon-approved candidate in Utah and there’s a good reason for that: Most Utah Republicans don’t buy into Bannon’s hard-line alt-right ideology.
For example, polls conducted earlier this year have showed that most Utah voters opposed Trump’s order banning travel from predominantly Muslim countries and more than half opposed his proposed border wall.
Mounting an assault on Hatch from the right actually does him a favor. Take his last campaign in 2012, when the Club for Growth rallied support for state Sen. Dan Liljenquist. It let Hatch’s team position the senator as — of all things — a Washington outsider under assault from beltway special interests. It would be too mind-bending to comprehend if it wasn’t true.
None of this is to say Hatch can’t be beaten, but you don’t do it with an ideological barrage. You beat him by hammering his broken promise not to run again, questioning his age and hoping for a “senior moment” on the trail, and hanging all of Washington’s problems on the veteran lawmaker while offering a vision for how to fix what is broken in Congress.
But it’s a message that depends on sincerity and needs to come from a home-grown candidate, not some tool of the alt-right’s puppet-master.