Sens. Dick Lugar (Ind.) and Orrin Hatch (Utah) are tea party targets in 2012, but the two Republicans couldn’t be more different when it comes to approaching the movement.
Lugar has been almost hostile, name-calling tea partyers who disagree with him and keeping up his moderate voting streak despite being vulnerable to a challenge from the right. But Hatch is keeping his friends close and his enemies closer, appearing at tea party events and offering partisan red meat to activists at the Conservative Political Action Conference last week.
Lugar said tea party activists who disagreed with his stance on the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty should “get real.” Tea party activists angry about his support of Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor for the Supreme Court didn’t get any comfort from his support for the immigration measure known as the DREAM Act.
Hatch voted for Kagan to become solicitor general but against her Supreme Court nomination. He has been a solid conservative vote since seeing fellow Utah Sen. Bob Bennett get booted by the Republican Party in 2010. Tea party activists are angry over Hatch’s vote for the Troubled Asset Relief Program.
“You may disagree, but you’re not sitting there having to make these decisions. I probably made a mistake voting for it,” Hatch told the CPAC crowd of his TARP vote. Yet he said he thought “we would have gone into a depression” without the law.
Hatch first started meeting with tea partyers in 2009 and has recently taken extra steps to find common ground with them, speaking at a Tea Party Express event at the National Press Club and at CPAC.
The meetings may be helping.
The Tea Party Express said in late January that it wasn’t planning to target Hatch, and a tea party activist in Utah told Roll Call that he felt Hatch had learned from his mistakes. David Kirkham, president of Kirkham Motorsports in Provo and organizer of Utah’s first tea party rally in 2009, said he discussed Hatch’s vote for TARP with him in 2009.
“He kind of looked at me and was like, ‘Yeah, that really was a bad vote, wasn’t it?’” Kirkham recalled earlier this week.
Tea party leaders in Utah will wait until the state legislative session is over in the next couple months to begin to engage in the Senate race, Kirkham said. No Republican candidate has publicly declared intentions to run against Hatch yet, but Rep. Jason Chaffetz is frequently mentioned as a potential opponent.
Both Hatch and Lugar may have learned from their colleagues’ experience during the 2010 cycle and may be reacting to the very different primary systems in their states.
In Indiana, a crowded Senate GOP primary during the 2010 cycle meant former Sen. Dan Coats, who is unpopular among tea party activists and seen as an establishment candidate, came out the victor with just 39 percent of the vote. Tea party supporters split their vote between the four other candidates, and second-place finisher Marlin Stutzman, now a Congressman, got 29 percent of the vote.
Since Indiana doesn’t require a primary winner to reach a certain threshold, Coats sailed through and easily won the general election in November. Lugar may be hoping for the same results.
Yet tea party activists in Indiana say they learned from their mistake. Greg Fettig, a leader of Hoosiers for Conservative Senate, a tea-party-affiliated umbrella group whose only goal is to defeat Lugar in 2012, said they hope to unite around one candidate this time. He said much of the problem with Lugar has been his attitude, accusing him of attacking and belittling the tea party.
“I don’t think any other conservatives or Republicans ever treated the tea party that way,” Fettig said.
Hoosiers for Conservative Senate will host a caucus in Indianapolis sometime between June and September to endorse a candidate to oppose Lugar. Already state Treasurer Richard Mourdock (R) is preparing to announce his candidacy against Lugar next week, and state Sen. Mike Delph (R), a former aide to Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), said he would take a look at the Senate race when the state legislative session ends later this spring.
Lugar senior adviser Mark Helmke said the tea party still may not present a unified front, insisting the Senator has met with tea partyers who support him. But Helmke declined to provide names of tea partyers who back the Senator.
In Utah, Bennett lost in 2010 at least partly because of the state’s unique nominating system. Utah first chooses delegates at county conventions, and those delegates whittle down the field at a state convention. Over the course of three votes the field is narrowed down, and as soon as a candidate tops 60 percent, he or she is the nominee. If no one tops 60 percent by the third vote, the two candidates who are left go to a statewide primary election.
In 2010, Bennett was eliminated at the GOP convention, and two candidates, Tim Bridgewater and Mike Lee, advanced to the primary. Lee won the primary and the general election and is now a leader of the tea party movement on Capitol Hill.
Dave Hansen, who led Hatch’s 2006 re-election bid and just returned to lead his 2012 bid, said the Senator is only continuing his long tradition of hearing from voters he represents.
“First of all, it’s important that he talk to everybody in the state, and he does that very well,” Hansen said. “Tea party groups are part of the voters out here. He wants to get their input.”
Hansen said Hatch has already begun recruiting supporters to run for county delegate spots.
“Basically you go out and find people who are Hatch supporters, and you go through a training process with them and provide encouragement and assistance and help them get elected at their caucuses as delegates,” he said.
Ultimately, Hatch may find primary voters are a little more forgiving in Utah this time around.
“Do I agree with him 100 percent? No. Do I agree with my wife 100 percent? No,” Kirkham said. “I think people can understand that.”