Hatch’s Victory Blueprint and the Tea Party’s Limits

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Colin E. Braley / AP

U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, greets members of his family on a street corner outside his campaign headquarters, Tuesday, June 26, 2012, in Salt Lake City. The 78-year-old, six term senator beat his challenger, Utah state Senator, Dan Liljenquist in a primary election Tuesday.

Orrin Hatch’s win in the Utah Republican primary Tuesday night — a triumph that all but ensures he’ll add another term to his 36-year tenure in the Senate — was a tribute to Hatch’s textbook strategy for rebuffing an upstart challenge and a testament to the limits of the Tea Party‘s clout. This is not, for obvious reasons, the way the folks who labored to engineer his ouster are spinning it.

“We would have liked to have seen Senator Hatch replaced. Short of that, we’re pretty pleased with what  happened in the race. Senator Hatch moved as far to the right as he possibly could to get reelected, and that to us is a victory in itself,” says Russ Walker, the national political director of the Tea Party advocacy group FreedomWorks. Dave Weigel buys it. The logic here is simple: If the goal of the Tea Party is to force RINOs to toe the line, well, Hatch did that. The last two years, Hatch amassed a 100% rating from the American Conservative Union. If this was a purity test, he passed.

But if this is what now counts as a win in Tea Party circles, the movement has lowered its aspirations dramatically since its heady giant-slaying days of 2010. FreedomWorks spent about $1 million to oust the dogged septuagenarian. They knocked on 120,000 doors, made over 280,000 phone calls, and put up 10,000 yard signs — all in the four weeks leading up to primary. And yet Hatch won going away.

Walker says the group was at a sizable disadvantage: facing an entrenched incumbent with a sizable war chest in a state where Mitt Romney, a Hatch backer, is political royalty. “You had an alignment of the stars” in Hatch’s favor, he said. But Utah, as Bob Bennett’s 2010 loss proved, is in many ways a perfect laboratory for the Tea Party experiment — ruby red, with a convention process that gives a small universe of some 3,500 delegates (who tend to be conservative activists) the power to dump a sitting Senator. Without a mighty effort, Hatch was in trouble, and he knew it. He’s been furiously fundraising, scrambling to sideline local opponents and crisscrossing his state for three years, an effort that intensified after his fellow senator became the Tea Party’s first major scalp in the summer of 2010.

Hatch assiduously courted local opponents, and when it became clear that if he couldn’t win some over, he kept calling anyway. “I have never in my life seen anybody work so hard. He deserves to win,” says Utah Tea Party founder David Kirkham. As I reported last year, when Hatch showed up at the first meeting of Kirkham’s group in the spring of 2009, the Tea Party “basically told him to drop dead,” according to Kirkham. And yet Hatch persisted, phoning Kirkham regularly, even after the Provo businessman announced he would not support the Senator. Hatch called three times between the state convention, when he nearly took out challenger Dan Liljenquist, and the primary runoff. After Hatch won, Kirkham sent a congratulatory text message. “He ran a brilliant campaign,” Kirkham says. “They started early, worked very hard reaching out to Tea Party groups and constituents across the state…that goes a long way to mitigate angst, which is certainly what Senator Bennett didn’t do.”

FreedomWorks encouraged its activists to take heart with the success it achieved. “The limited-government movement is largely responsible for the 180-degree change in Senator Hatch’s votes and rhetoric over the past two years,” it said in a statement. But it’s not like Hatch did a total about-face. He’s always been a conservative senator, with an 89% lifetime rating from the ACU. In 2010, when every Republican began talking about imminent tyranny like Mel Gibson in “The Patriot,” merely conservative didn’t cut it. Hatch had on his record black marks like TARP and the Dream Act and votes from liberal judicial nominees, and that was enough to guarantee a challenge from his right.

In March, FreedomWorks’ Walker gave an interview to the website Red Alert Politics in which he warned that Hatch would edge back toward the middle if he won. “The problem with politicians is that they swing to the right when it is election time,” Walker said then. So why should we give the Tea Party credit for spending a $1 million to force that process, if the smart money is on the pendulum swinging back now that he’s won?