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."
Utah's unique primary system affords each party's political base significant leverage in the process. To qualify for the statewide primary ballot, candidates must finish in the top two and secure at least 40 percent support in voting among 3,500 state party delegates. Bennett was ousted last year after he finished third in a vote of Utah GOP convention delegates, including many tea party activists, who thought he was insufficiently conservative.
Some grass-roots conservatives are hoping Hatch suffers the same fate. But the six-term incumbent, aware of what happened to Bennett, is spending heavily to recruit delegates committed to his re-election for the 2012 state GOP convention vote. The consensus in Utah is that Chaffetz might have won, but it would have been a dogfight. The Representative conceded that while he expected to win, victory wasn't assured.
"By all accounts it was going to be a bloody, knock-down, drag-out, intraparty fight," Chaffetz, 44, said. "Even if you win, you walk out of that so scathed and battle-scarred that your ability to succeed long term is I think somewhat diminished."
Hatch "is beatable, I think I could have won, but we won't know, because I'm just not willing to pick that fight right now," Chaffetz added.
Utah's senior Senator is just as adamant that he would have prevailed in a primary against Chaffetz. Hatch declined to speculate as to why Chaffetz chose not to challenge him. And, while Hatch said that he was aware of the Freedom Path television spot, he said he was "surprised" by it.
"I think [Chaffetz] made the right choice, because he's making headway [in the House] and some of the people who work with him are very pleased with him," Hatch said. "I didn't intend to lose. ... I like him; I'm just happy he made that choice."
Given Utah's convention system, Hatch remains vulnerable to primary challenge, and he is likely to have an opponent of some kind. One of the names mentioned is state Sen. Daniel Liljenquist (R). But unlike Bennett, Hatch is prepared, having hired some of the key advisers to Lee in his race to prepare him for the convention.
Hatch could also receive help from groups like Freedom Path, should he need it as the 2012 state GOP convention draws near. Just how much depends upon how competitive the race gets, sources say.