SALT LAKE CITY — Sen. Orrin Hatch and his campaign team have heard enough from their most vocal critics and are fighting back, lambasting the leaders of FreedomWorks and the Club for Growth as hypocrites and political has-beens struggling to remain relevant.
The groups counter that Hatch's broadside is "a sign of weakness" and an attempt to shift the conversation away from past votes that may derail his 2012 re-election bid.
This spat comes at a time when Hatch has no declared challenger but still has faced repeated criticisms from these Tea Party-affiliated groups, which argue that he is not conservative enough.
Their latest jabs focus on the debt-limit debate. FreedomWorks and the Club slammed Hatch for repeatedly voting to increase the amount of money the nation can borrow, which he has supported 16 times since joining the Senate in 1977.
But Hatch's staffers, led by campaign manager Dave Hansen, say they won't lie back and take such attacks, particularly from people who have long voting records of their own. FreedomWorks Chairman Dick Armey voted at least twice to raise the debt ceiling as a former House majority leader, and Club for Growth President Chris Chocola did so three times as a congressman from Indiana.
Hansen called them "extremely hypocritical." He also noted that, on the debt fight, Hatch's position mirrored that of FreedomWorks and the Club for Growth. The groups supported a plan that would tie a balanced-budget amendment to the debt-limit increase. It passed the House and failed in the Senate.
Chocola said he isn't ducking his past debt-ceiling votes, and he agrees that the recent debt debate "is in a different universe" than similar efforts in the past. But at the same time, he said it doesn't make sense for Hatch to argue he can solve the problem now.
Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks, says the debt-ceiling criticism is just part of a broader critique that includes Hatch's support for things such as the Children's Health Insurance Program, earmarked spending and the prescription drug benefit in Medicare.
Hansen said the two groups are not attacking others who voted the same way.
Hatch's team is just trying to "change the subject," Kibbe said.
But Jennifer Duffy, who analyzes Senate campaigns for the Cook Political Report, says Hatch's argument is fair. She said, as of now, the groups appear to be acting as surrogates for Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, their preferred candidate to take on Hatch. But Chaffetz, who is considering a Senate run, has taken plenty of shots at Hatch on his own, including on the debt.
Daryl Acumen is an active Republican who considers Chaffetz his favorite House member, but he also rejects the argument that Hatch's past debt-limit votes are damning.
He said a country that has grown wealthier over time has to up the debt limit when the economy hits a rough patch, which happened in the '80s, the early 2000s and this year.
Acumen has volunteered for Hatch once -- at the state convention earlier this year -- and he talked with a FreedomWorks staffer. He left baffled by the logic of trying to replace Hatch when he is the ranking Republican and could potentially be the chairman of the committee that writes tax policy and oversees Social Security and Medicare.
He said the nation is focused on those issues now, providing a chance to make needed changes.
If Hatch is defeated, moderate Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, will take his spot on the committee, and that has raised some eyebrows.
Duffy, a political handicapper, said it would make more ideological sense for the conservative group with a reputation for going after Republican incumbents to target Snowe, who is also up in 2012.
Hatch says he is in line with the Club's political positions, even if he has a problem with Chocola. And he predicts that the group will be quite happy if he wins re-election and the Republicans take over the Senate.
"They want Obamacare repealed, so do I. They want a balanced-budget amendment, so do I," Hatch said. "When I'm chairman, they can count on Utah to get it done."
But that won't be decided until November 2012. Until then, his campaign argues that FreedomWorks and the Club should get out of the Republican primaries and go after members of the other party.
"Why aren't they out there spending money and using their efforts to try to defeat liberal Democrats?" Hansen asks. "That's the irritating part about it and the most difficult to understand."