SOUTH JORDAN — Angry, frustrated voters flocked to town hall meetings held by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, for the last two nights — giving him a taste of the voter venom that has fueled a tough re-election fight for his friend Sen. Bob Bennett.
But Hatch insists that voters aren't angry at him. "They are upset at the way things are in Washington, and so am I," he said Thursday. "I share their anger."
And despite anti-incumbent angst, Hatch said he still plans to run for re-election in 2012 — when he would be 78 years old. That would make him 84 at the end of another six-year term.
"Mainly the anger is at this (Obama) administration and its arrogance of power," Hatch told the Deseret News before a meeting Thursday at Elk Ridge Middle School. "Some also are angry at Republicans. But I think it's out of frustration. I hope they can look beyond their frustration and see how I have served them."
But a crowd of about 400 on Thursday vented mostly anger, not admiration, at Hatch — much as some members of a beyond-capacity crowd in Harrisville did on Wednesday night. Jeers and occasional boos were not uncommon.
For example, one man suggested a constitutional amendment to ban Congress from exempting itself from the laws that it passes for others — and the audience roared with cheers. When Hatch said that would create more problems than it might solve, several booed and yelled out catcalls.
When Hatch was giving a long comment about health care reform, one man interrupted, yelling, "Will you repeal it?"
When Hatch said, "I favor repeal, but it isn't that simple," many grumbled in the audience.
Later, another man accused Hatch of pushing unconstitutional health care proposals that were "Democrat light," and the audience cheered again. Hatch responded, "You're not only wrong, you're absolutely wrong."
Hatch did win some cheers, for example, when he opposed any amnesty for illegal immigrants, when he said he worked to ensure that tax money will not pay for abortions and when he opposed making it easier for labor unions to organize.
As a sign of how upset voters are, as Hatch looked at a line of people waiting to ask questions that was so long it stretched all the way to the back of the auditorium and beyond, Hatch said, "We've had more people at town meetings recently that we've had than at any time" in his 34 years in office.
Hatch showed signs that he may be learning from problems that Bennett has faced.
On Thursday, Hatch chose to be introduced by former Gov. Norm Bangerter — who is not endorsing Bennett this year, and instead is backing attorney Mike Lee. Hatch also heaped praise on conservative tea party and 9/12 movements, which have targeted Bennett as not conservative enough.
Still, Hatch told the Deseret News that if voters reject Bennett this year, they are making a mistake.
"He (Bennett) has been a good partner. He is willing to stand up and fight for Utah," he said. Hatch added that it would be a "mistake to reject him when he is in a position of strength and ability" in the Senate from his seniority and experience.
Because of voter anger, Hatch also told the Deseret News that he figures he may face a contested re-election fight in two years, as Bennett has faced with seven GOP challengers this year. "But I've been in tough fights before," he said.