Some of you may recall that two years ago Republican U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett of Utah was unceremoniously dumped at a state GOP convention, not even qualifying for his party’s primary. This was in many respects the high point of Tea Party Fever in 2010, though it didn’t draw as much attention as, say, Christine O’Donnell’s primary win over Mike Castle in Delaware, because it didn’t cost Republicans a Senate seat.
Heading into this year, some of the same people who took out Bennett were plotting a similar fate for veteran conservative Sen. Orrin Hatch, who has offended many wingnuts with such outrages as his occasional cooperation with Democrats (Bennett’s key sin as well). Dick Armey’s FreedomWorks was especially active in undermining support for Hatch in the early stages of Utah’s byzantine system of state party delegate selection, spending a reported $650,000 as part of an overall $900,000 anti-Hatch effort in the state.
But Hatch has fought back with some shrewd positioning to the hard right, with the kind of money that the ranking minority member of the Senate Finance Committee can raise, and with vocal backing from Mitt Romney, who may be considered a boring, flip-flopping corporate suit in other places but is a rock star in Utah. Hatch seems to have done very well in the local delegate elections leading up to the state convention, which will be held on April 21, and the only real question is whether he’ll win outright or will still face a primary (where he would be heavily favored).
And in contrast to many GOP warhorses who are half-apologetic about fighting the Tea Folk, Hatch appears determined not only to beat his opponent, former state senator Dan Liljenquist, but to humiliate the guy’s backers. Here’s what he told NPR (I happened to hear this on the car radio yesterday, and nearly ran a stop sign):
“These people are not conservatives. They’re not Republicans,” Hatch angrily responds. “They’re radical libertarians and I’m doggone offended by it.”
Then Hatch, a former boxer, turns combative. “I despise these people, and I’m not the guy you come in and dump on without getting punched in the mouth.”
I’m old enough to remember when Hatch was first elected, in 1976, and was generally considered the most right-wing member of the Senate other than Jesse Helms. It seems surreal that he’s being called a RINO. Looks like he feels the same way.