SALT LAKE CITY — With a challenge from within his own party in the offing, Sen. Orrin Hatch is taking aggressive steps to make sure the same conservative and tea party activists who ousted Robert Bennett, Utah's other longtime senator, don't do the same to him.
Hatch's campaign has offered jobs to tea party activists to recruit delegates who would support him at next year's State Republican Convention. He has also repeatedly reached out to some of the national groups that were so instrumental in laying the groundwork for Bennett's defeat.
"Bennett never really understood the situation he was in, I don't think. If he ever did, it was way too late," said Chris Chocola, president of the Club for Growth, a conservative group that ran ads against Bennett. "Hatch clearly understands the position he's in and he's working hard to save his job. He sees it coming, sees us coming."
Whether these efforts pay off will go a long way in determining whether Hatch is re-elected in perhaps the most Republican state in the nation.
Darcy Van Orden of Layton, Utah, was one of the tea party leaders the Hatch campaign talked to about working to win Hatch a seventh term. She said she declined a job offer, and when she began comparing notes with other organizers of the tea-party clearinghouse Utah Rising, she learned that six of seven had also been approached about a job.
"I find it a little disturbing that Hatch thinks he can buy this election by handing out jobs right and left," she said.
Hatch's campaign manager, David Hansen, disputed her version of events. He said that the campaign reached out to her about working for the campaign, but he said Van Orden was not formally offered a job. Hansen says other tea party leaders who were hired were brought on without regard to that affiliation.
"Some of them were (hired), but it was primarily because they are good at what they do," Hansen said. "They were good campaign workers and campaign organizers."
Chocola said Hatch telephoned him shortly after the state's GOP convention last year and asked for a meeting. Hatch also surprised the staff at FreedomWorks by showing up at a reception at the advocacy group's new Washington headquarters.
Hatch is also backing off the positions that made him known in the Senate for his ability to work with Democrats. He no longer is co-sponsoring legislation that would help young immigrants become legal U.S. residents after spending two years in college or the military. He now says that voting for the financial bailout was a mistake.
"I think you can make a case that, without it, that we would have probably gone through a depression because things were even worse without it. But I wish I could vote on that over again," Hatch said. "That's one of the few votes I have cast around here where, if I had to do it over again, I would have voted the other way."
The most serious threat to Hatch's re-election prospects probably will come during the GOP primary. Shortly before next year's state convention, neighborhoods throughout Utah will meet to elect 3,500 delegates. The delegates tend to be among the most politically active and conservative voters within the state, a profile that fits tea party members. Whoever gets 60 percent of the delegate vote goes on to represent the party in the general election. If no candidate reaches the 60 percent threshold, the top two vote-getters go on to a primary election.
Chocola and others say that Bennett lost his race several weeks before the convention, when neighbors caucused to select convention delegates. Some 75,000 people showed up on caucus night, double the usual turnout. Many of the delegates they elected were newcomers. Nearly all believed the country was headed in the wrong direction.
Utah Tea Party organizer David Kirkham said "there isn't the angst with Hatch that was with Bennett" but many people are still bothered by his involvement in the nation's spiraling debt.
Whether Hatch faces as riled-up a crowd next year depends on who his opponent is. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, 44, is being courted by many conservatives. Chaffetz, a former placekicker at Brigham Young University, is a limited-government believer who contrasts Hatch's support for the education reform in No Child Left Behind with his belief that there shouldn't be an Education Department.
Another potential challenger is Dan Liljenquist, a 36-year-old state senator.
His potential rivals voice a distinct respect for Hatch, even as they make clear that they have major differences with him.
"He's been a good senator for the most part," Chaffetz said. "I just think, conceptually, most people are opposed to 42 years of contiguous service."
"God bless Orrin Hatch for his decades of service. He's boosted the state's reputation," Liljenquist said. "But I'm looking for leadership on lowering the debt and entitlement reforms, and I don't believe he can provide it."
Conservatives most frequently criticize Hatch for his 2008 vote to rescue financial firms in distress and for his work a decade earlier in establishing the State Children's Health Insurance Program. Under the program, the federal government and states subsidize the cost of health insurance for low-income children who are ineligible for Medicaid. He ended up voting against an extension of the program when President Barack Obama took office, saying that some states were using the program to cover the middle class rather than the poor.
Matt Kibbe, president and CEO of FreedomWorks, said Hatch's support for a health insurance program administered by the government, even one aimed at children, is fundamentally inconsistent with the tea party movement.
"We need to make sure the goal is not to elect a Republican. The goal is to elect a fiscal conservative," Kibbe said. "In a state like Utah you can and should get a 100 percent fiscal conservative elected."
Hatch has a rating of nearly 90 percent from the American Conservative Union, on par with the lifetime score generated by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and about 6 percentage points ahead of Bennett's lifetime score.
"'I've been here 35 years and it's pretty hard to find someone with a more conservative record than I have," Hatch said.
Hatch's outreach may not have won over the tea party yet, but the anger that was directed toward Bennett is less apparent with Hatch. They're waiting to see what the field looks like before ruling out Hatch.
Josh Steimle, a 36-year-old political blogger from Draper, Utah, said Hatch reacts only after voters express their displeasure.
"People are becoming more educated, and instead of just kicking out the bums, they want to find somebody better," Steimle said.
In the end, Hatch says he believes that he'll win over many of those who worked to oust Bennett.
"I think quite a few of them are looking at this pretty carefully. They're saying, 'Do we really want to get rid of Orrin?' And most of them are answering, 'No, because we need him,'" Hatch said. "Some of them have said we just don't need two freshmen senators back there with all the problems Utah has and all the ways the federal government will pick on Utah if we don't have someone there who is strong enough to stop it."
Freking reported from Washington.