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Hatch Gets Air Cover From Utah Nonprofit

Chaffetz Out of Way, Still No Easy Primary for Hatch

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Rep. Jason Chaffetz said he declined to run for a Senate seat in Utah because he wanted to avoid a bloody primary battle with Sen. Orrin Hatch (above).

Utah nonprofit Freedom Path is quietly taking credit for helping to persuade Rep. Jason Chaffetz not to challenge Sen. Orrin Hatch in the 2012 Republican primary.

While Freedom Path plans to be active in Nevada, Texas and a few other states during this election cycle, the organization made its first move in Utah, where Chaffetz had repeatedly indicated that he might vacate his safe House seat to run against the Senator.

But soon after Freedom Path spent $200,000 to air a spot on statewide television describing Hatch and Sen. Mike Lee as two "conservatives leading the fight in Washington" while never mentioning Chaffetz the two-term Congressman declined to take on Hatch.

Chaffetz told Roll Call on Tuesday that the ad was amusing, and he contended it did not influence his decision to remain in the House. But the Republican acknowledged that part of his calculus was a desire to avoid a bloody primary battle that might have left him with irreparable political damage. Freedom Path board member Scott Bensing indicated, in the first interview granted by the group, that the nonprofit has no qualms with Chaffetz's conclusion.

"Freedom Path paid to air the ad 'Leaders' in Utah because we feel strongly about the balanced budget amendment and those who have a strong history of supporting it as elected officials such as Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee," Bensing said. "We will continue to aggressively voice our support for issues important to a fiscally sound government."

Bensing, a Reno, Nev.-based lobbyist and political consultant, served as executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee during the 2008 cycle under then-Chairman John Ensign (Nev.). He declined to disclose the names of the other two board members of Freedom Path, which is not required to reveal its donors because of its 501(c)(4) status. Freedom Path's 527 sister organization, Freedom Path Action Network, is required to report its fundraising activity.

Nonprofit organizations like Freedom Path are limited in the amount of political activity they can engage in without running afoul of federal law.

But the message of its television spot thanking Hatch and Lee for their work supporting a proposed balanced budget amendment was unmistakably intended to telegraph to Chaffetz that attempting to oust Hatch would be difficult and would not unfold in the relatively easy way that Lee's takedown of then-Sen. Bob Bennett did in the 2010 GOP primary convention.

Utah GOP political consultant LaVarr Webb said the Freedom Path television spot was noticed and its point understood.

"The political community [in Utah] was aware of the ad," Webb said, adding about Chaffetz and his decision not to challenge Hatch: "He had difficulty raising money."

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