A sign that Orrin Hatch is feeling the heat

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, is a longtime Republican institution in Utah — almost an idol. But Hatch knows he is not safe for his 2012 reelection, and he's right.

Hatch is facing a likely challenge for the Republican nomination for his seat from conservative Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R, who already took out one incumbent with his 2008 run for the House.

In 2010, Utah's other longtime incumbent Republican senator — Bob Bennett — lost the right to vie for the GOP nomination for his own seat in the state convention. He was replaced on the ballot and in the Senate by Mike Lee. Even if he has become one of the Senate's new outstanding conservatives, Lee was not exactly a top-shelf candidate when he announced. But Bennett, who was not exactly a moderate, was nonetheless viewed as having “gone Washington,” and failed to cultivate the ties that might have saved him from his third-place finish in convention.

Hatch has always been much smarter than Bennett about remembering where he comes from. He keeps up with all the state convention-goers — I'm told meets with them personally whenever possible and sends them all birthday cards.

But Hatch also faces a far more serious potential challenger in Chaffetz than Bennett faced in Lee. Which might explain the press release I just received, in which Hatch touts an unusual and very early endorsement — that of conservative radio and television star Sean Hannity. I didn't listen to Hannity's show today, but here's what he said, from Hatch's press release:

“I’m not sure if Clarence Thomas would be on the bench today but for you…I don’t think guys like John Roberts and Sam Alito would be there either.   All the times you have been fighting for these Balanced Budgets over the years … what you’ve done for the Supreme Court which is impacting this country literally now for generations and decades…is why I’ve endorsed you for your race in the Senate.”

Bennett was felled, in part, for his supposed apostasy in attempting to devise an alternative bill to Obamacare. Does Hatch have a similar weakness? He was heckled at CPAC for his support of TARP. Some social conservatives will also remember Hatch's role on the opposite side of the debate over human cloning.

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