On a Tuesday in early February, a Tea Party event at the National Press Club set off miniature waves of excitement over a rather unlikely guest: Orrin Hatch. Hardly a favorite of the movement, Utah’s longest-serving senator and elder statesman surprised just about everyone by showing up alongside Representative Michele Bachmann and Senator Rand Paul and proceeding to address the assembled activists like a patriarch reunited with his loyal disciples. “I’ve been watching what the Tea Party does. I’m very impressed,” Hatch said. “I think it’s time for America to take back America, and the Tea Party is playing a role in that, and I appreciate that.”
The audience responded with tepid applause. But outside the room the question was buzzing: Who invited this guy? Tea Party Express, the group that organized the event, quickly denied responsibility. “He invited himself,” the group’s chairwoman, Amy Kremer, told CNN. Hatch, for his part, maintained that he had been asked to attend—but what began as a ploy by the senator to ingratiate himself with conservative activists soon wound up as a media fiasco that the blogosphere dubbed “InviteGate.”
Ever since the first Tea Party demonstrations in 2009, perhaps no incumbent has tried harder than Hatch to cultivate Tea Party ties—and for good reason: The senator often tops the conservative movement’s list of targets for a primary challenge in 2012. Unfortunately for Hatch, though, it seems that the more he tries to woo Utah tea partiers—through abrupt policy reversals, conservative grandstanding, and, in some cases, incessant phone calls to local activists—the less they like him.
When David Kirkham, founder of the Utah Tea Party, organized the group’s first demonstration in March 2009, he says his prime targets were George W. Bush and Utah’s two Republican senators, Bob Bennett and Orrin Hatch. Hatch was especially reviled by staunch conservative activists for supporting TARP and for his past work with Ted Kennedy on expanding children’s health insurance, or S-CHIP. Eager to make amends, Hatch’s staff reached out to secure an appearance for the senator at the event. In Kirkham’s recollection, he basically told them to drop dead. But, unlike Bennett, who didn’t bother courting conservative activists until it was too late, Hatch kept on trying.
His overtures have taken many forms. Months after the initial tea parties, Hatch was the first senator to quit the finance committee’s Gang of Seven, which was seeking a bipartisan deal on health care reform. After Tea Party activists denied Bennett his bid for reelection in the spring of 2010, Hatch started referring to health care reform as “terrible” and a “monstrosity.” He also dropped his support for the DREAM Act, which would grant resident status to college- or military-bound minors who had been brought to the United States illegally—even though he was an original sponsor of the bill. In the current Congress, Hatch has reintroduced a balanced-budget amendment, a favorite among tea partiers, and co-sponsored the Republican Senate effort to repeal the health care law.
Back in Utah, meanwhile, Hatch built a formidable campaign operation, hiring staff and amassing $2.5 million in his campaign war chest by the end of 2010. Perhaps more important, he secured the blessing of Sal Russo, the Tea Party Express’s top strategist and a former consultant on Hatch’s 2000 presidential bid. “I think he was an original tea partier,” Russo told National Review. “He has been talking about our issues from the beginning. Orrin is a Reagan conservative, as far as I’m concerned, and that’s as good as it gets.”
Due to Utah’s arcane nominating process, however, the real battle is fought at the grassroots level, and that’s where Hatch has encountered the stiffest resistance, although not for lack of trying. Utah’s primaries are largely decided by a mere 3,500 delegates who are elected at precinct meetings a few weeks before a state convention, meaning that Hatch has had to seek their votes by lavishing attention on the small group of very conservative activists who will decide his fate.
Kirkham, who owns a custom-made-auto company in Provo, says that the six-term senator has called him frequently, sometimes as often as three times a week, as well as on his birthday. Darcy Van Orden, a co-founder of the Davis County 9/12 Project and author of an unpublished manuscript titled The New Nazis, which describes how professors attempt to brainwash and indoctrinate students in the classroom, says she has also had her fair share of conversations with Hatch. “I tend to have a heated discussion [about politics], and he and his staff will always consent to exactly that,” she says. But, while they credit Hatch for his attentiveness, Utah’s Tea Party activists aren’t convinced he really gets their message.
Van Orden told me that Hatch invited her to a meeting in his office while she was attending the Conservative Political Action Conference last month in Washington. But her initial excitement soon dissipated when the two got down to policy specifics. “When we asked him to name his biggest conservative accomplishments in the Senate, he brings up S-CHIP—and that expands government,” she recalls. “And he brings up his orphan-drug legislation [designed to encourage research on rare disorders]—and that expands government, too!” Susan Southwick, who serves as a Utah state coordinator for the Tea Party Patriots and works at Costco, recalls a similar experience at a meeting in Hatch’s district office in Salt Lake City. “He just talks about his seniority, the committees he’d be able to be on and be the head of, for example, and, while I know that’s all good and good for Utah, I just think we need change across the board,” she says. “He’s a delightful man, and I enjoyed spending time with him, but I can’t see myself voting for him ... unless of course the other guy is completely incompetent.”
To be sure, Hatch still has a few tricks up his sleeve. The activists I talked to spoke ominously about his campaign’s machinations to hire staff from the state’s grassroots base and recruit loyalists to run as delegates and serve at the nominating convention. Brendan Steinhauser, director of federal and state campaigns for FreedomWorks—one of the groups that helped orchestrate Bennett’s ouster—told me, “He’s definitely trying to hire [local activists] away and find them an alternative job than trying to beat him.”
Yet a recent Utah Policy poll shows the conservative Representative Jason Chaffetz running dead even with Hatch—and Chaffetz isn’t even in the race yet. Furthermore, a majority of Utah voters think that someone other than Hatch should represent them in the Senate. Against such strong sentiments, there’s only so much that Hatch can hope to achieve. “I’ve gotten a flyer every week for the last four weeks, some kind of mailer or other fluff piece on Orrin being a conservative and touting conservative efforts he made over a decade ago,” says Daniel McCay, a Republican delegate for Salt Lake County who has volunteered with FreedomWorks. “I think the reaction from tea partiers has been, ‘Orrin, we’ve got decades of votes that contradict what you’re offering us, and, thus far, your votes are more compelling than your mailers.’”