WASHINGTON — A trade group representing nursing homes has given the Utah Republican Party $175,000 over the past year, money that could help Sen. Orrin Hatch stave off a tea party challenge and win re-election.
If he does, and if the Republicans take over the Senate, Hatch stands to chair the committee that has jurisdiction over the tens of billions of Medicare and Medicaid dollars that flow annually to nursing homes.
The trade group's money was used to boost attendance at the state's neighborhood caucuses last month, and analysts say the broad caucus turnout enhanced Hatch's prospects for wining his party's nomination for a seventh Senate term. That's because the delegates elected to attend the state Republican Convention on April 21 included more moderates and fewer of the tea party supporters who two years ago rejected former Utah Sen. Bob Bennett's bid for a fourth term in 2010.
Nursing homes weren't alone in attempting to help Hatch, now the senior Republican on the Senate Finance Committee and likely to be its chairman next year if the GOP takes control from Democrats in the November election. A political action committee representing radiologists has spent about $77,000 supporting his candidacy through print ads and other activities conducted independently of the Hatch campaign.
The contributions show how some interest groups are demonstrating their support for Hatch beyond the $10,000 limit that political action committees must abide by when contributing directly to a candidate's campaign.
Such support could be particularly important next year if Republicans take control of the Senate. The Finance Committee has jurisdiction over Medicare and Medicaid spending, which is critical to both nursing homes and radiologists trying to fend off spending cuts in the coming fiscal year.
Nursing homes rely greatly on federal reimbursements to survive. The federal government's Medicare program is projected to spend about $31 billion on nursing home care in 2012. Medicaid, a federal-state partnership, will spend about $45 billion with nursing homes, according to Health and Human Services Department projections.
Campaigning in Utah this week, Hatch said he wasn't aware of contributions to the state party organization from Washington-based interest groups.
"If any of them gave money because they like me, it is because they agree with what I stand for and not because I do what they want," Hatch said.
Officials at The Alliance for Quality Nursing Home Care declined to comment for this report. The alliance represents 12 companies owning about 1,400 properties throughout the county.
Utah is one of about a dozen states that place no limits on how much money can be given to political parties. In past years, companies and lawmakers from Utah dominated the party's donor list. But in 2011, trade groups from Washington moved to the top of the list.
The Alliance for Quality Nursing Home Care provided the largest donation of the year, $100,000, records show. The group then kicked in another $75,000 this year, said Ivan DuBois, executive director of the Utah Republican Party.
A trade group representing mortgage insurers also donated $40,000, as it did in 2010. Hatch's Senate panel also has jurisdiction over the tax treatment of mortgage insurance.
DuBois said the money the state party has raised funds its operations and three initiatives: registering more GOP voters, encouraging more people to vote by mail and boosting caucus participation.
The donations from the Alliance for Quality Nursing Home Care weren't solicited, he said, and the group didn't specify how the money should be used. But "they were excited to see the caucus participation increase," DuBois said.
Utah's nomination process is unique. First, voters gather around the state to select delegates for their party's state convention. Then, those delegates vote to determine who should be the party's nominee in the general election. A candidate needs 60 percent of the delegates' support to win the nomination outright.
Otherwise, the top two voters engage in a primary election. Hatch is hoping to secure the nomination at the convention or advance to a primary that would probably include either former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist or state Rep. Chris Herrod.
Overall, the Utah Republican Party spent about $300,000 on efforts to boost attendance at the neighborhood caucuses last month. While the party is officially neutral in the Senate race, its get-out-the-vote effort for the caucuses helped Hatch, said Kelly Patterson, director of the Centers for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University.
"The caucuses last time around were dominated by tea party activists who had a very anti-Washington, anti-incumbent bent," Patterson said. "I think huge efforts were made to turn out as many delegates as possible to moderate the effects of the tea party ideology."
Hatch has spent nearly $8.6 million so far in seeking a seventh term. His chief rival, former state Sen. Liljenquist, said the money raised and spent by the state party seems minimal by comparison. He also said he believed that party officials focused their effort on caucus turnout without favoring any one candidate or ideology.
"The driving caucus participation is a good thing and the party used their money fairly," Liljenquist said. "But it pales in comparison to the money spent by the Hatch campaign."
Hatch has raised about $3.6 million directly from political action committees. It's less common for PACs to engage in campaigning independently of the candidate, but that's what the American College of Radiology has done in Utah. The group's PAC spent about $77,000 in support of Hatch, according to Federal Election Commission reports.
"Our effort is not necessarily to stand out from others but to support candidates that have a grasp of our issues, that know who and what radiologists are and do, and how the important work that (our) members perform fits into the larger healthcare arena," said Ted Burnes, director of the radiologists' PAC. "We support Senator Hatch and others that we think fit this description."
James Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University, said the spending by the trade groups is a way to thank lawmakers for their work and to keep an open communications channel.
"It doesn't mean they can buy votes. It doesn't mean they can buy influence, but it certainly means they are known and can talk to the senator and the senator's staff about issues of their concern," Thurber said.
Loftin reported from Salt Lake City.