Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch escaped a top-tier intraparty opponent last week, but it’s still highly likely he will be challenged at next year’s state GOP convention.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz’s decision last week not to run against his fellow Republican threw a wrench in the gears of the anti-Hatch factions in Utah and in Washington, D.C. Chaffetz, a second-term Congressman, was viewed as having the best shot to end Hatch’s 35-year run in the Senate. But conservatives and tea party groups are not throwing in the towel.
“I do think Orrin Hatch will face opposition from the far right tea party groups,” GOP consultant LaVarr Webb said. “We don’t know who that will be yet, but there are several people considering running.”
The Club for Growth had been openly recruiting Chaffetz to the race, but the conservative anti-tax group remains committed to ousting Hatch.
“We continue to believe that Utah Republicans can do better than a big government bailout supporter like Sen. Orrin Hatch,” club spokesman Barney Keller said.
Webb’s daily newsletter for political junkies, UtahPolicy.com, quoted Utah tea party organizer David Kirkham in an interview Tuesday saying he is “very seriously” considering challenging Hatch. But the car-restoration business owner is waiting to make any decisions until after his company’s annual event on Sept. 10.
Speaking Tuesday with Roll Call, Kirkham played down his interest in the race but said he’s been urged to run.
“If you were to compare it to sticking your toe in the pool, let’s just say I’m just looking at the pool,” Kirkham said.
Kirkham has worked closely with national tea party groups such as FreedomWorks and is among the best-known tea party organizers in the state. But while considering his own bid, he’s interviewing potential Senate candidates and said there are at least five who are looking at the race, including himself.
Kirkham revealed only one potential candidate, state Sen. Dan Liljenquist, who Kirkham said is probably closer to running than him.
Other potential challengers whose names are floating in the state include Morgan Philpot, who challenged Rep. Jim Matheson (D) last year, and Saratoga Springs Mayor Mia Love, who is the daughter of Haitian immigrants and the first black woman mayor in Utah. Both are also considering House bids, insiders said.
State Rep. Stephen Sandstrom and former state Rep. Craig Frank are also said to be looking at the race.
Some 3,500 locally elected delegates will gather at the April 21 state GOP convention to select the Senate nominee. If a candidate receives 60 percent of the vote, they are automatically nominated. But if no candidate gets 60 percent, the top two finishers advance to the primary, where Hatch’s financial advantage gives him the edge.
“Chaffetz was the toughest competition for Hatch, but with him out, I think Hatch still needs to be concerned about the convention,” Webb said. “And I think there’s still a possibility someone could force Hatch into the primary. But I think Hatch is now the favorite.”
In 2010, then-Sen. Bob Bennett was targeted by the Club for Growth and other outside groups and finished in third place at the GOP nominating convention. Now-Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) won the primary and then was elected to the Senate last November.
If Hatch is able to make it past the convention and primary he could still face a November contest worth watching. Matheson is considering running for statewide office depending on what happens to his district in redistricting. National Democrats are high on their prospects in the state, even though Utah hasn’t elected a Democratic Senator since 1970.
Vice President Joe Biden waits to conduct a mock swearing-in ceremony with Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, in the Capitol's Old Senate Chamber, December 2, 2014. Schatz was sworn in to serve the remainder of his term since he was appointed to the seat after Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, passed away.