WASHINGTON -- A Tea Party group, under fire for its work in the Utah Republican Senate caucuses last week, is pledging to continue fighting to oust Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and to play a role in other Senate races.
Washington-based FreedomWorks for America said that it plans to press on with the effort to replace Hatch with former Utah state Sen. Dan Liljenquist (R), while also helping Tea Party candidates win U.S. Senate nominations in Indiana, Texas and Nebraska, among other states.
"I think the Tea Party movement is stronger this year," said Ryan Hecker, who works on campaign initiatives for the group. "In key states, we are working for conservatives. This is a turning-point year to retake the Senate majority."
The group remains optimistic despite reports in Utah that FreedomWorks' strong support for Liljenquist backfired and helped Hatch. Under Utah's election rules, last week's Republican precinct caucuses elected 4,000 delegates to attend next month's state GOP convention, which will pick either one Senate nominee or two candidates to face off in a June primary. Hatch, the incumbent, is competing against Liljenquist and state Rep. Chris Herrod for the nomination.
In 2010, the state convention denied then-Sen. Bob Bennett a chance to run for reelection in the primary. Since Bennett's surprise loss, Hatch and his foes have been aggressively maneuvering to capture this year's convention, including seeking to elect their own delegates at the caucuses.
While not all the delegates have revealed which way they lean, both sides are claiming victory. Russ Walker, FreedomWorks' executive director, said that Liljenquist and Hatch each won 30 percent of the delegates, with the rest of the seats belonging to uncommitted delegates. Dave Hansen, Hatch's campaign manager, said the senator had the lead among delegates following the caucuses.
With some caucus attendees taking to Twitter to decry FreedomWorks' $600,000 investment in the Utah race, including robocalls on behalf of Liljenquist, there's been talk that the group's involvement cost Liljenquist support. But Walker said he does not believe that to be the case.
"It was smoke and mirrors," Walker said of the tweets. "In the caucuses I attended, I heard nothing about FreedomWorks."
Walker and Hecker both said the record turnout, estimated to be as high as 200,000, contributed to the caucuses' split result and vowed that FreedomWorks would continue pushing to oust Hatch. They said the group would reach out to the convention delegates to discuss Liljenquist's and Hatch's records.
Hansen described a similar campaign by Hatch, noting that the senator will be spending the next four weeks in Utah meeting with delegates and attending delegate events and county GOP conventions to tout his Senate record. He said Hatch is not concerned about FreedomWorks' continued involvement.
"Their efforts in the pre-caucuses failed miserably," Hansen said. "People in Utah don't like their slash-and-burn attacks."
As for the rest of the Senate, Walker said Hatch is not the only incumbent in FreedomWorks' sights, emphasizing the group's desire to see state Treasurer Richard Mourdock defeat Sen. Richard Lugar in Indiana's GOP primary. Other primary races on the group's radar include Texas, where the group is backing former state Solicitor General Ted Cruz over Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, and Nebraska, where it's supporting state Treasurer Don Steinberg over Attorney General Jon Bruning.
Hecker stressed that the group's work is focused not just on winning these particular races, but on building a national policy movement for conservatives. One goal of that movement is to elect a conservative-controlled Republican Senate majority.
"The Tea Party movement is alive and well. I am seeing it on the ground in Texas and Indiana," Hecker said. "Our strategy is not to just win, but to build Tea Party support across the country and to affect policy."