The 2010 midterm elections may have only just occurred, but that hasn't stopped speculation from swirling about the vulnerability of Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch, who will fight to keep his seat for a seventh term in 2012.
According to a Salt Lake Tribune/Mason-Dixon survey released this week, 48 percent of voters in the state say they would replace the longtime senator if he were up for reelection today, while 40 percent indicate they would support him retaining his post. Perhaps a more striking finding from the poll is that just 19 percent of Utah GOP delegates favor reelecting the incumbent lawmaker. 71 percent signal it's time to replace him with a fresh conservative face.
A brief look at the Utah Republican party's unusual nominating process -- along with the ousting of the state's other GOP senator, Bob Bennett, earlier this year -- lends context to buzz brewing on the potential for a Hatch defeat in the next election cycle.
For an incumbent to secure a place on the state's primary ballot outright, he or she must lock-up 60 percent voter support from thousands of party delegates. If a lawmaker cannot achieve that threshold, then the two candidates who earn the most votes at the state party convention get their names on the ticket. In Bennett's case, the process resulted in him becoming the first incumbent Utah senator to lose renomination in six decades. Just before he was kicked-off the ballot, Time magazine reported on conservative efforts underway at the time to take down the longtime senator:
Tea Party leaders and anti-Bennett groups have cast the senator's plight as a harbinger for Republicans who fail to court newly energized conservative voters and heed the anti-incumbent winds buffeting Washington's elite. But other analysts say that is giving the Tea Party movement too much credit. They view Bennett's potential demise as the product of the blood-red state's unique nomination system, in which a few thousand delegates have the clout to choose a U.S. Senator for a few million residents.
The ghost of Bennett's defeat now seems to be looming over Hatch's 2012 reelection hopes. Given the wavering posture the GOP senator has exhibited towards the Tea Party, it seems that he may sense a tangible threat.
As early as February of this year, Hatch cautioned members of his party that the rise of the Tea Party movement could prove to be a detrimental force to the GOP. "If we fractionalize the Republican Party, we are going to see more liberals elected," he explained at a town hall event, provoking backlash from conservative members of the crowd.
At the time of Bennett's loss, Hatch reiterated a similar message, but also went a step further to criticize "these Tea Party people" as activists who "don't have an open mind" and "won't listen." He suggested he could empathize with their anger, but that he thinks "anybody would find fault with" the parochial attitude.
The same week as he made the remarks, Hatch confirmed to Politico that he understands Bennett's defeat could hold significance for his own political fate. Since then, Hatch has appeared to be making efforts to cozy up to the Tea Party, which catapulted a handful of conservative candidates to victory over establishment-backed contenders in this year's election cycle.
"Frankly, I like the tea party people," said the incumbent lawmaker to Utah-based station KSL over the summer. "They're people who are just angry. Now, some of them you can't reach, but I don't think they are the real tea party people. ... Most of them are honest decent people who are fed up with the federal gov. spending us blind."
Last month, Hatch fired an unmistakable line of defense against the suggestion that he could be a prime target for the Tea Party in 2012, just as his home state colleague was earlier this year. Speaking out on the matter during an appearance on Bloomberg's "Political Capital With Al Hunt" he asserted, "I like Bob Bennett. I felt like he was a great senator. But I'm no Bob Bennett."
Hatch then went on to elaborate on his rationale, explaining, "I'm meeting with these folks, the Tea Party people and others, and I'm holding extensive town hall meetings." He added, "I think they know that I'm not Bob Bennett. Bob was a conservative, but I'm more conservative than he is."
Whether or not Hatch will fall victim to the Tea Party in 2012 remains to be seen; however, for now, it seems that the longtime senator has his eye on the potential for the movement to take aim at his political future.