No Republican in Washington is more worried about the Tea Party than Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch. But a few Republicans should be as worried as Hatch, notably Indiana Sen. Dick Lugar.
The Tea Party last year got the attention of many Republicans. Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, was the prime victim, losing his Senate seat in the party convention, while establishment Republicans Mike Castle, Charlie Crist, Arlen Specter and Trey Grayson also felt the insurgent sting. Defeating or driving out of the party all these moderates were Tea Party-backed conservatives who railed against pork, high taxes and overspending.
Hatch and Lugar are the 2012 candidates who most fit the mold of Tea Party targets, and both have credible potential challengers. But the two incumbents appear to be taking different tacks: Hatch is banking Right, while Lugar stays his centrist course.
Hatch's most likely challenger is Rep. Jason Chaffetz. Chaffetz is politically savvy and expert at sounding the anti-establishment message. “Jason was Tea Party before the Tea Party,” says his friend state Sen. Dan Liljenquist, referring to Chaffetz's 2008 primary victory over incumbent Chris Cannon. Liljenquist could run against Hatch as well.
Strike one against Hatch: He's a porker. Strike two is his history of courting Democrats and partnering with the likes of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy. Strike three is simply how long he's been in D.C. Media accounts regularly describe Hatch (like Lugar) as “an institution.” This is not a good time to be “an institution.”
Could the Tea Party take him out? Liljenquist thinks so. “I think a lot of people are emboldened by what happened to Bennett,” he tells me, “and that Hatch is in worse shape than Bennett.”
Hatch sees the target on his back. Last week, Hatch pulled all of his earmark requests out of the omnibus spending bill before it imploded. After being an original sponsor of the DREAM Act — granting amnesty to illegal immigrants in college and the military — Hatch has this year come out against it. After supporting a food safety bill in committee in 2009, Hatch voted nay on the Senate floor.
Conservative political operatives say that since Bennett's defeat, Hatch has courted those same donors and operatives that helped make 2010 so tough for incumbents.
In Indiana, though, Dick Lugar isn't tacking right. “It's almost as if he's inviting a primary challenge,” one frustrated Beltway Republican said this week as Lugar agitated for the DREAM Act and stood by his earmarks in the omnibus. Lugar's spokesman told me Friday that the senator had not made up his mind on the omnibus before Democrats pulled it.
Being undecided on that pork-filled spending bill puts Lugar at the far Left end of the GOP caucus. Spokesman Mark Helmke attributed Lugar's indecision to his focus on ratifying the START Treaty with Russia, which is a prime target for Sen. Jim DeMint, the champion of insurgent Republicans.
“I think he still doesn't get it,” a conservative Hill staffer told me. One Republican political operative says Lugar's just been in town so long he's lost touch with his party. “I don't think he's intentionally trying to dare people to run against him. I just think he's tone-deaf.”
But Lugar doesn't think he's tone-deaf. After the election, he wrote an article interpreting the results and roughly laying out an agenda. A conservative piece in the centrist-Republican Ripon Forum, it defended the Tea Partiers against common slurs, and advocated tax reform, spending cuts and entitlement reform.
Lugar also knows he's in the cross hairs. “He is anticipating a challenge by somebody,” Helmke told me. “He is raising money actively. He is organizing a campaign. … He will campaign actively on his conservative positions.”
State Sen. Mike Delph has openly considered challenging Lugar, and many Beltway conservatives consider him a credible candidate. Other names — like State Treasurer Richard Mourdock — are floated. A crowded field would be Lugar's salvation, as he would be able to win with less than 50 percent.
If conservatives take on Lugar or Hatch, the Club for Growth — which provided financial firepower for many Tea Party insurgents — would likely play a role. Club Vice President Andy Roth gave me this comment about Hatch and Lugar: “Let's just say they're under the microscope. We are keenly aware of Hatch and Lugar's past voting record and we plan to track every vote they take in the foreseeable future.”
This attention seems to be having an effect on Hatch's voting record. Will it move Lugar?
Timothy P.Carney, The Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at email@example.com. His column appears Monday and Thursday, and his stories and blog posts appear on ExaminerPolitics.com.