Sen. Orrin Hatch’s (R-Utah) political career is on the line in Thursday’s GOP caucuses in Utah.
“The caucuses are extremely important — you have to work to get your delegates at the state convention,” Hatch told The Hill on Wednesday night.
Tea Party activists packed the convention and defeated Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) two years ago, and hope to repeat that move this year to beat Hatch. The national Tea Party group Freedomworks has dropped more than $600,000 on the race. But after seeing what happened to Bennett, Hatch came prepared.
“From the beginning, the odds were they would try to do to me what they did to Sen. Bennett,” Hatch said. “I’m a tough old bird, let me tell you. We are fighting back.”
Hatch has been recruiting people to run as delegates, training volunteers on how the caucuses work and running targeted radio and television ads aimed at active Republicans. He said he began organizing for the caucuses more than two years ago, and his first direct-mail piece went out last summer.
The six-term senator has spent the last few days in Utah, making last-minute appeals to potential supporters, holding multiple town halls and making calls at his phone banks. He said he’d been maintaining his regular Washington hours while campaigning: rising at 4:45 a.m. and working until 9 p.m.
Hatch’s campaign manager, Dave Hansen, said the campaign has recruited 5,000 people to run as delegates at the caucuses, and thousands more to show up and vote.
Freedomworks has been active as well: It has recruited more than 3,500 people to run as delegates, according to Freedomworks Vice President Russell Walker.
“We’re looking good, we’ve recruited the delegates we need,” Walker told The Hill. “Our message has gotten out there. It’ll be interesting to see how the night plays out.”
Hatch did not hide his dislike of the group: “It’s been really hard for me, to have people distort your record like this,” he said. “I’ve never had people come in here and lie, spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on lies … I have no respect for anybody with that organization, I think they’re despicable.”
The often-centrist senator has taken on an increasingly conservative tone in the past year, leading the charge in Congress on the Balanced Budget Amendment, a cause he’s long pursued. He’s lined up support from prominent conservatives including right-wing radio hosts Sean Hannity and Mark Levin as well as Mitt Romney, who remains immensely popular in the state: Hatch has been running radio and TV ads featuring praise from Romney.
Hatch announced Tuesday night that if he wins this year it will be his last term.“I’ll be at 42 years in the U.S. Senate at the end of the term,” he said. “In the next six years I think we can turn this country around, I really do. I’m one of those people who will be fighting his guts out to change our trajectory.”
The fight is now all about the delegates who will go to the convention, which Freedomworks sees as its best shot at ending Hatch’s career.
There are 1,820 separate caucuses around the state, making organization crucial for the race. The state convention is April 21, and if 60 percent of the 4,000 delegates are Hatch supporters, he avoids the primary altogether and becomes the nominee. If anti-Hatch forces reach 60 percent, he’ll lose in the convention. If neither side reaches 60 percent, Hatch will be forced into a primary, but his high level of popularity with the general GOP electorate and his huge war chest will give him the edge in that race.
One wrinkle: Brigham Young University’s basketball team has a major tournament game just hours before the caucuses, which some think might depress turnout a bit.
Hatch said his campaign is “confident we’re ready and all the hard work will pay off,” but when asked whether that meant an outright win at the convention or a primary, he hesitated. “It’s always been very tough to get 60 percent [of delegates], but there’s a chance here. I’m not counting on it but there’s a chance. If we had two more weeks we could do it. We’ll see.”
Freedomworks doesn’t see him winning at the convention.
“We think the best he’s going to do is get a primary, he’s not going to win a convention,” Walker said. “If Orrin survives the primary, it’s going to be a narrow win for him.”
It will be hard to tell who wins the caucuses, or if it remains a muddled picture where the few undecided delegates could make the difference at the convention. Both sides have lists of supporters and will canvas the winning delegates to see who won, but said the process could take days.
BYU Professor Adam Brown said Hatch would win a primary, but he was uncertain how the caucuses and convention would go.
“It’s embarrassing to Hatch if he has to go to a primary, but he’ll win it,” he said. “Their concern is getting knocked out in a convention. As long as he survives it, he’s good.”