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Hatch Lets Loose His Inner Tea Party

Bill Clark/Roll Call
Conservative groups are trying to oust Sen. Orrin Hatch. The longtime Senator, once known for bipartisanship, is ready for battle, standing on the right every chance he gets.

Hatch has gone multimedia in his efforts to elevate his image with conservatives. He took to Twitter on Saturday, during the Utah GOP’s organizing convention, to align himself with anti-tax advocate Grover Norquist, whose pledge to not raise taxes is a staple in the party’s politics.

Hatch wrote an opinion piece in the Chicago Tribune on Tuesday to push for a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. He co-wrote the article with Tim Phillips, president of conservative Americans for Prosperity. Hatch last week earned backing from C. Boyden Gray, who served as White House counsel under President George. H.W. Bush and now sits on the board at FreedomWorks — which is actively working to upend Hatch’s re-election.

FreedomWorks rented a booth at last weekend’s state party convention that featured “Retire Hatch” signs. The group plans to run TV and radio ads in the state. It is already working at the grass-roots level to encourage its supporters to attend local caucuses next year and elect delegates to the convention who will vote out Hatch.

“The guys on the ground have done this once before,” said Brendan Steinhauser, director of FreedomWorks’ federal and state campaigns. “The difference is we can’t sneak up on Hatch like we did on Bennett.”

Hatch’s adjustment in political posture has been noticeable on Capitol Hill.

In the 1990s he collaborated with the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), known as the liberal lion, to create the State Children’s Health Insurance Program. In 2009 he briefly participated in a bipartisan gang attempting to reach a compromise on health care reform. But Hatch now more closely resembles the style of Republican he was in the 1980s, when he almost single-handedly killed a bill prioritized by organized labor in a chamber then dominated by the Democrats. 

One pro-Hatch Republican operative referred to him as “conservative before it was cool.” The operative noted that most political ads run by GOP primary candidates reference the late President Ronald Reagan, and said, “Hatch was there with Reagan in the trenches. He was a founding father of modern day Reagan conservatism.”

Hatch’s supporters point out that he has long been a supporter of the balanced budget amendment, coming within one vote of getting it through the Senate in the late 1990s. Hatch spokeswoman Antonia Ferrier acknowledged that the Senator has moved aggressively to inform voters about that part of his background.

But Ferrier rejects the notion that Hatch, ranking member on the powerful Finance Committee, has undergone a wholesale image change. She referenced the patent reform bill Hatch pushed through the Senate this year with Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa). “He’s still able to be effective,” she said.

A Senate Democratic aide lauded Hatch’s work on free trade, patents and tax reform. “Though he’s had to be more partisan than normal, he’s also worked well to move the ball forward in a bipartisan manner,” the aide said.

Hatch’s campaign is messaging the Senator’s legislative career to emphasize his conservatism over his bipartisanship. Besides fundraising, the Senator keeps a busy speaking schedule addressing groups, delegates and town halls. He spoke this winter at a Tea Party Express town hall and the Conservative Political Action Conference.

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