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'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.