SALT LAKE CITY — Sen. Orrin Hatch warned that Utah’s “special" political climate puts the GOP in danger of being dominated by extremists who don’t share the party’s values.
“Thank goodness they’re not the majority,” Hatch told the Deseret News after attending Monday’s swearing-in ceremony for Gov. Gary Herbert and other state executive officeholders. “But we’ve got to watch that or we’ll end up with a state dominated by radicals.”
Hatch, the only member of Utah’s congressional delegation who voted to reverse the so-called “fiscal cliff,” said he understands why his colleagues and others in the House and the Senate opposed the deal that restored tax cuts for most Americans.
“Those who voted against it did so to protect themselves, I guess, from some of these radical outside groups,” the state’s senior senator said. “I don’t find any fault with the delegation because we’ve got a special climate out there that is very difficult.”
Hatch, who has said this will be his final term, experienced that political climate firsthand last year, when he faced his first primary since 1976. His GOP challenger, Dan Liljenquist, was heavily supported by FreedomWorks, a national tea party organization.
“You saw me go through it. I don’t mind it. I think it’s good for people to get involved,” Hatch said. “But some of them aren’t Republicans who are trying to take over the Republican Party, who couldn’t care less about consistency, or the party, or what Republicans really stand for.”
Utah tea party organizer David Kirkham said he and Hatch agree that there are radical elements within the GOP. But Kirkham said he’s not as concerned as Hatch about their impact.
“There’s a very small faction that are just very angry and just want to yell,” Kirkham said, describing a group he believes includes at least some tea party supporters. He said that faction has no interest in compromising to “live to fight another day.”
That attitude is damaging to the GOP, said Kirkham, who backed Hatch’s re-election.
“I wish they could be more diplomatic, more persuasive and frankly, more inclusive in presenting their views,” Kirkham said. “I am afraid we are driving people from the party.”
Utah State GOP Chairman Thomas Wright said the influence of party extremists has waned since former Sen. Bob Bennett’s 2010 ouster by delegates to the Republican Party State Convention.
“There are radical people in our party, far right-wing radical people,” Wright said, crediting last year’s record caucus turnout with diluting their influence. Still, he said, “you always have to be cautious and concerned about it.”
Wright said he’s not sure the tea party supporters within the party fall into that group, which he described as “disproportionately loud. They’re a lot more energized and in some cases, better organized.”
He said while Hatch is right to speak up, the real solution to any concerns about the direction the party is headed is even more participation.
“We have radical voices in our party,” Wright said. “If you want your voice to be heard, you have to get involved.”
Utah State Democratic Party Chairman Jim Dabakis, a state senator, said it’s not clear to him that there are more radicals in the GOP.
Instead, he said, it may be that GOP moderates are “seeing some weakness and going after them now in a way they didn’t before.”
And, Dabakis said, Hatch has more freedom to be critical of the extremists in the GOP now that he doesn’t have to face another election.
“It’s good to see the old Sen. Hatch back. He had to go through a period of groveling and having to put up with all of that,” Dabakis said. “It’s clear that they’ve gone too far.”
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company