SALT LAKE CITY — It's no secret that a national tea party organization wants to dump Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch.
But who FreedomWorks believes is best suited to beat the six-term senator remains up in the air, even though two candidates have stepped up to the plate.
The Dick Armey-led political action committee launched its "Retire Orrin Hatch" campaign last June at the state GOP convention. Saying it expected to "heavily invest" in the race, it began searching for a "fiscal conservative" to run against Hatch.
So far, it has spent about $75,000 in Utah, said Russ Walker, FreedomWorks vice president of political and grass-roots campaigns. And it plans to put in a lot more.
"We're prepared to spend what we think is necessary," Walker said. "We'll spend a significant amount of money on this race. It will be a good chunk of change."
To date, two conservative Republicans — former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist and state Rep. Chris Herrod — have jumped into the fray and are vying for FreedomWorks' affection.
"It will be interesting to see how FreedomWorks feels having the two of them in the race," said Hatch campaign manager Dave Hansen.
Walker said it likes Liljenquist and Herrod but has endorsed neither. "Both of these guys would be a great improvement over Orrin Hatch," he said.
But the organization's search might not be over. Walker said he would "love to see" others consider running, and has talked with two possible candidates, though he wouldn't identify them.
"Both would be very viable candidates. One, if he jumped in, would be the front-runner," he said.
Having FreedomWorks' backing could go a long way to winning over delegates who get to decide the nominee at the state Republican Party convention April 21. If delegates can't settle on one candidate, the top two square off in a primary election.
The PAC based in Washington, D.C., has a powerful grass-roots network of more than 1 million members and 40,000 donors.
Walker held a strategy session in Utah this week with a "team of 40 or 50 of our most motivated organizers." Right now, he said, they're focused on identifying caucusgoers — GOP caucus night is March 15 — and "getting our people elected delegates."
In 2010, the group initially stood behind Tim Bridgewater to unseat three-term Sen. Bob Bennett until it found out Bridgewater had received federal money for one of his businesses, said Kirk Jowers, executive director of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics. They shifted to now-Sen. Mike Lee, who ousted Bennett at the convention.
Between Herrod and Liljenquist, Jowers said, Herrod might be a closer match for FreedomWorks.
FreedomWorks, however, appears to know Liljenquist better, having named him its 2011 legislative entrepreneur of the year. It also sent out a news release lauding Liljenquist's entry into the race, but at the same time said it believes he is just one of "numerous" candidates who will step up to challenge Hatch.
And though the PAC wants to boot Hatch, it hasn't stopped one of its top officials from getting behind the senator.
Steve Forbes, FreedomWorks Foundation board vice chairman and Forbes Inc. president and CEO, is backing Hatch's bid for a seventh term.