SALT LAKE CITY — The leader of a top tea party organization based in Washington, D.C., came to Utah to look for a candidate to defeat Sen. Orrin Hatch in next year's race for the GOP nomination.
Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks, said he's already seen "at least two or three viable alternatives" to Hatch, during what was billed as the first meeting of the national Tea Party Debt Commission, held Thursday in South Jordan.
The search by Freedomworks comes after the candidate widely favored by the tea party movement, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, announced last week that he won't run for the Senate this time.
While in Utah, Kibbe met with two potential GOP challengers to Hatch, Utah tea party organizer David Kirkham and state Sen. Dan Liljenquist, R-Bountiful. But Kibbe doesn’t appear to be in any hurry to make a decision.
"It's still early as far as we're concerned," he told reporters before meeting with the Deseret News editorial board Friday. "If you look at the cycle last time, where Mike Lee eventually replaced Sen. (Bob) Bennett, I think we have plenty of time."
FreedomWorks, chaired by former GOP House leader Dick Armey of Texas, backed now-Sen. Lee, a first-time candidate who entered the race late, in the battle to unseat Bennett in 2010.
Now the group's target is Hatch.
Freedomworks launched its "Retire Orrin Hatch" campaign with a booth at the state GOP convention in June and Kibbe said he expects the organization to be "heavily invested" in the race.
The concern with Hatch started years ago, he said, with the state Children's Health Insurance Program, created by Hatch and Sen. Ted Kennedy in the mid-'90s.
Calling the program "socialized medicine for kids," Kibbe said Hatch has also supported numerous programs over the years that fail to meet the tea party's definition of fiscal conservatism.
He also said it was ironic that Hatch won his first race for the Senate in 1976 by arguing that the incumbent, Sen. Frank Moss, a Democrat, had been in office for too long.
"Now that Sen. Hatch has been there 35 years, I think it's time for him to come back to Utah and allow for fresh blood," Kibbe said. "Look at the impact Mike Lee has had. ... It shows it's not all about seniority."
Hatch's campaign manager, Dave Hansen, said Utahns won’t be swayed by outsiders.
"Frankly, that's offensive," Hansen said, "to have a bunch of guys from Washington, D.C. at the direction of a guy from Texas telling Utahns who they're going to have as the Republican for the U.S. Senate."
He was careful, however, to say that he was "not talking about Utahns who like some of the things that Freedomworks stands for. I'm talking about this group of political operatives from Washington, D.C., who think they can tell us what to do."
Kibbe said Freedomworks came to Utah to recruit a challenger to Hatch because "we're hearing from Utah tea party leaders across the state that this is what they want to focus on. So we're supporting them in their efforts."
Utah County tea party organizer Kirkham said Freedomworks was invited to Utah. "We called Freedomworks. They didn't call us. We asked if they could help us."
Kirkham said he won't make a decision about entering the Senate race until after a major event on Sept. 10 related to his racing car company.
"My interest is that we get a great candidate," Kirkham said. "Someone who votes in a fiscally conservative manner, and regularly. That's what I'm looking for. I hope that's what we're all looking for."
Liljenquist, too, said while he's considering entering the U.S. Senate race, he's not ready to make a decision. He said he shares Freedomworks' "concern with fiscal issues. If you look at my legislative record, that's where I've focused my efforts."
Kibbe said during his meeting with the Deseret News editorial board that Freedomworks is looking for a "legislative entrepreneur" in the Senate race. "I'm not all that interested in a guy who just votes, 'no,'" Kibbe said.
Lee, he said, has rallied unprecedented support for a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution among Republicans.
"If you want to know what the payoff is, look at what Mike Lee has accomplished," Kibbee said. "That's the payoff for us because we're interested in policy."
Kibbe said the tea party has moved beyond being a protest movement.
"This is a hostile takeover of the Republican Party," Kibbe said. The organization considers Utah, Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania to have the strongest support for the tea party.