Can Orrin Hatch Tame the Tea Party?

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The Tea Party doesn’t have a leader, but it does play favorites. Several of them turned up Tuesday night for a Congressional town hall hosted by the Tea Party Express and billed as the first of its kind. Crammed into an airless conference room at Washington’s National Press Club, the standing-room crowd was energized and eclectic. A tricorn-hatted revolutionary hovered near a woman in a hijab. Activists snapped pictures and gave rousing ovations as movement stalwarts Rand Paul, Michele Bachmann, Steve King, and newcomers Allen West and Mike Lee pledged fealty to Tea Party principles.

The senior statesman of the group arrived first, which was fitting, because he had the most to prove. “I for one want to thank the tea party for what they’ve done,” Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah said. Unsure of how to respond, the crowd cautiously murmured its thanks. Unlike his counterparts, Hatch isn’t a star in the constellation of the Tea Party Express, one of a handful of national groups who last spring helped Lee cashier Utah’s junior senator, Bob Bennett. Hatch was on hand as part of his ongoing effort to avoid a similar fate. Tea Party Express chairman Amy Kremer made clear he had work to do. “He invited himself,” she told CNN. “All I can say is he needs to be ready to answer the tough questions.” (For his part, Hatch told TPM that he was invited.)

After giving effusive welcomes to Paul and co., Kremer welcomed Hatch with all the enthusiasm of a PA announcer introducing the visiting team’s starters. Hatch, who’s up for re-election in 2012, was eager to kiss rings. He laced his opening remarks with Tea Party keywords, bemoaning the “monstrosity” of the health-care law, stressing his record of seeking a balanced-budget amendment, plugging the Tea Party triumvirate of limited government, fiscal responsibility and free markets, and offering bromides about taking America back. Hatch has a diffident manner, and his dour remarks – “We are living in perilous times” – drew a polite but muted response, with only a smattering of cheers. Bachmann, by contrast, entered late and drew wild applause when she warned that our ability to pass the torch of freedom to our offspring was “up for grabs on the table.”

If the Tea Party hasn’t embraced Hatch, their frostiness toward his candidacy has thawed considerably. That alone is an achievement. Hatch has been a senator for 34 years, which is itself a fatal flaw for the insurrectionists eager to purge the party’s dinosaurs. (When he mentioned the length of his tenure, a man behind me muttered, “Time to move on.”) Since coming to Washington, he’s committed enough apostasies to flunk any Tea Party purity test. Hatch voted for TARP, sponsored the DREAM Act, and has a record of forging alliances with Democrats like the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, with whom he worked on broadening children’s health-insurance coverage.  David Kirkham, the founder of the Utah Tea Party, says that when he organized the group’s first gathering in the spring of 2009, he did so out of dissatisfaction with three people: George W. Bush, Bennett, and Hatch, whose staff got wind of the gathering and called to see about getting the Senator a speaking slot. “We basically told him to drop dead,” Kirkham recalls.

Bennett’s camp inquired about the event too. But whereas the junior senator wrote off the group’s support after getting rebuffed, Hatch chipped away. He invited Kirkham to his office for what turned into a marathon meeting. They didn’t agree, but Hatch listened, and since then, the two have remained in close contact, speaking on the phone as often as three times a week, Kirkham says. Hatch called on Kirkham’s birthday. He called during Elena Kagan’s nomination fight, before the Democrats’ omnibus bill died in December, and during the earmark debate. Hatch dialed Kirkham a few minutes before Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell capitulated to the backlash against the pet projects, effectively sealing the party’s earmark moratorium. “I know Orrin had some influence on that, and I hope we had some influence on Orrin,” says Kirkham.

This extensive Tea Party outreach, which Hatch has been conducting with numerous activists in his home state, dovetails with the senator’s recent move to the right, which may in turn have been driven by the impulse for self-preservation. On top of his about-face on earmarks, Hatch dropped his support for the DREAM Act in the face of the GOP’s animus for amnesty and made mea culpas for his TARP vote. Faced with the prospect of fending off a challenge from his right flank, he has started hiring campaign advisers and stockpiling his war chest. He reported $2.5 million in the bank at the end of 2010—dwarfing, for example, the total reported by Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a House star rumored to be mulling a Senate bid.

“This is probably as early as a campaign has ever started, and one of the reasons is our process,” says Dave Hansen, who resigned as Utah’s Republican Party chairman to manage Hatch’s re-electioncampaign. Utah has a quirky nominating system that allows just 3,500 Republican party delegates tap a nominee in a state with almost 3 million people. The delegates, who are elected at precinct meetings a few weeks before the nominating convention, are extremely conservative, even for ruby-red Utah. About one-quarter of the state’s delegates are members of Tea Party or 9/12 groups; perhaps another 50% align with them ideologically. When I wrote about Bennett’s impending ouster back in May, political scientists told me the Senator would likely have survived under any other system.

“There’s no question,” says Kirkham, “the convention process in Utah makes political candidates more beholden to the delegates.” Hansen doesn’t dispute that claim. “When you’re dealing with a universe of 3,500 people, if you work hard enough you can find out where those delegates stand.” What’s more, if fieldwork suggests a certain delegate is dead set against Hatch, the campaign can try to find a sympathetic replacement.

With all the work he’s done, could Hatch finagle an endorsement from a group whose founding principle was, in part, to engineer his demise? “No chance,” says Kirkham, who later tacked on the caveat that he might change if Hatch’s main challenger is a moderate like former Gov. Jon Huntsman. “An endorsement is one thing. Tolerance is another.” After the ease with which the Tea Party dispatched Bennett, if tolerance is on offer this time around Hatch may consider himself lucky.