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Sen. Orrin Hatch acknowledged Thursday that his re-election campaign had been raising the specter of moderate Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) becoming Finance chairwoman to boost his prospects in Utah’s upcoming GOP nominating contest.
The issue is now moot. Snowe — next in line behind Hatch to chair the powerful Senate Finance Committee if Republicans capture the majority in November — announced Tuesday that she will forgo re-election and retire at year’s end. Republican sources have said one of Snowe’s motivations was her conclusion that she was unlikely to ascend to Finance chairman during her next term.
In an interview, Hatch sounded almost regretful that the issue was raised at all, saying he previously discussed the matter with Snowe and that their friendship and professional rapport are intact.
“Conservatives who are for me have raised the issue. Now I wish nobody had,” he said. “I’ve always raised it in this context, that Olympia Snowe is our more moderate Member.”
Hatch added that he is deeply disappointed Snowe has decided to retire from the Senate. “Nobody feels as badly as I do that she’s decided not to stay. She’s been a good friend,” he said.
But just before Snowe’s announcement, the Hatch campaign had dropped a direct-mail piece with a graphic that presented the GOP primary as a choice not between Hatch and his two opponents but between Hatch and Snowe as the next Finance chairman. Hatch is working to boost his support with Republican activists ahead of the March 15 contest to elect the delegates to the state GOP convention where his political fate will be determined.
A Republican consultant in Salt Lake City who has followed Hatch’s primary campaign said the Senator’s pitch about keeping Snowe’s hands off the Finance gavel has been a consistent but minor theme of his campaign. The Hatch campaign also has raised the issue independently of Snowe to discuss how Utah would benefit from having its senior Senator at the helm of Finance.
“Clearly, it was something the Hatch campaign was mentioning and fostering in political activist circles, but it wasn’t part of the broader communications effort,” GOP strategist LaVarr Webb said in an email exchange with Roll Call. “The Hatch opponents are making a little hay with it in social media, but I don’t think it will have a big impact. Hatch’s main message is still valid — that if he wins and Republicans take control of the Senate, he will chair Senate Finance and have major influence over entitlement reform, etc., and become perhaps Utah’s most powerful member of Congress ever.”
According to Utah’s nominating rules, Hatch must earn the support of 3,500 delegates to the April 21 state GOP convention to secure a spot on the June 26 primary ballot. Voting for those delegates will be held March 15 in local precinct caucuses throughout the state, and Hatch and his opponents have been working to elect delegates favorable to their candidacies.
In 2010, Sen. Bob Bennett (R) failed to earn a spot on the statewide GOP primary ballot when he finished third in a vote of Utah GOP convention delegates, effectively ending his career. Hatch, who is running against former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist and state Rep. Chris Herrod, has been working to avoid a similar result.
To advance to the June 26 primary ballot, Hatch must finish at least second in a vote of the Utah GOP convention delegates and hold the first-place finisher to less than 60 percent of the vote. Should Hatch finish first among the delegates with 60 percent or more of the vote, he would proceed to the primary ballot unopposed and be considered a shoo-in for re-election in November.