Tea Party out to defeat Hatch, as well as other longtime GOP senators

Feb 18 2011 - 12:21am

Images

(CLIFF OWEN/The Associated Press) Sen. Orin Hatch, R-Utah, waits to speak during a Tea Party town hall meeting at the National Press Club in Washington recently. He is trying to woo the Tea Party in order to save his political career.
(Associated Press file photo) Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., who is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, talks on Capitol Hill in Washington late last year. The longtime Republican with a national reputation for working well with Democrats is telling Tea Party challengers to “get real.”
(Associated Press file photo) Senate Select Committee on Intelligence member Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, arrives for a closed-door briefing on Capitol Hill in Washington earlier this month. What does a longtime Republican senator with a national reputation for working well with Democrats do in the face of a potentially career-ending Tea Party challenge? If you’re Snowe, you fight off the “Snowe Removal” effort by making key alliances with Tea Party activists and highlighting your record of fiscal conservatism.
(CLIFF OWEN/The Associated Press) Sen. Orin Hatch, R-Utah, waits to speak during a Tea Party town hall meeting at the National Press Club in Washington recently. He is trying to woo the Tea Party in order to save his political career.
(Associated Press file photo) Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., who is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, talks on Capitol Hill in Washington late last year. The longtime Republican with a national reputation for working well with Democrats is telling Tea Party challengers to “get real.”
(Associated Press file photo) Senate Select Committee on Intelligence member Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, arrives for a closed-door briefing on Capitol Hill in Washington earlier this month. What does a longtime Republican senator with a national reputation for working well with Democrats do in the face of a potentially career-ending Tea Party challenge? If you’re Snowe, you fight off the “Snowe Removal” effort by making key alliances with Tea Party activists and highlighting your record of fiscal conservatism.

WASHINGTON -- What does a longtime Republican senator with a national reputation for working well with Democrats do in the face of a potentially career-ending Tea Party challenge?

If you're Orrin Hatch, of Utah, you woo them.

If you're Richard Lugar, of Indiana, you tell them to "get real."

And if you're Olympia Snowe, of Maine, you fight off the "Snowe Removal" effort by making key alliances with Tea Party activists and highlighting your record of fiscal conservatism.

Hatch, Lugar and Snowe are all on notice that their approach to governance may no longer be welcome.

It's clear the Tea Party -- not even two years old -- isn't going away anytime soon after huge success in last fall's congressional elections.

Dozens of its favorite candidates -- Republicans who champion limited government and sharply reduced spending -- won House and Senate races.

Now, the Tea Party is empowered and turning its attention to vulnerable Republicans up for re-election in 2012. How the three GOP senators handle the Tea Party threat will go a long way to determining whether the outcome mirrors that of 2010.

In Utah, Hatch's efforts have begun to pay off, but the junior senator, Mike Lee, who replaced Sen. Robert Bennett in a Tea Party upset in 2010, has said he won't endorse Hatch for re-election.

In Indiana, the Tea Party is organizing to unite behind one candidate who could challenge Lugar in a primary. In Maine, the plan is for a spring "Snowe Removal."

Unlike in 2010, when incumbents were surprised to be overtaken by upstarts, these longtime senators can't say they were caught off guard.

Hatch is doing anything but what he has always done.

The senator who teamed up with a liberal icon, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, to create a government program to provide health insurance for poor children is now showing up at Tea Party events, sounding far more partisan than he has in his six terms in the Senate.

Hatch has good reason to be nervous. After seeing Bennett, a longtime colleague, defeated amid a Tea Party revolt in Utah's byzantine GOP nominating convention last year, Hatch immediately signaled he would not be caught flat-footed.

He began assiduously courting the Tea Party in his home state. Now Hatch emphasizes his view that Obama's health care overhaul is a monstrous job killer that would raise taxes and threaten liberty.

"He's clearly been reinventing himself a bit," said Matthew Burbank, a political science professor at the University of Utah. "When George Bush was president, you didn't hear him complaining a lot about spending."

Hatch, 76, attended an event last week billed as a Tea Party town hall. He sat next to such conservative upstarts as Rep. Michele Bachmann, of Minnesota, and Sen. Rand Paul, of Kentucky, and he went out of his way to speak the language of the movement.

"It's a real good thing for us to see that we're finally getting people up in arms -- willing to do the things that pull this country where it really ought to be, which is a free-market system without government intrusion in every step of our lives," he said.

The charm offensive has worked, to an extent. Hatch recently secured a promise from the national Tea Party Express that he wouldn't be targeted in 2012 -- assurances that Lugar and Snowe have not received.

But the peculiarities of Utah's political system, which requires candidates to win over their party's most fervent supporters in a convention just to advance to a primary election, mean that Hatch could still be vulnerable.

Lugar, 78, is telling Tea Party activists to "get real" if they want to take on the New START nuclear arms reduction treaty. They also oppose his support for President Barack Obama's Supreme Court nominees and for the DREAM Act, legislation that would give a faster path to citizenship to the children of illegal immigrants if they graduate from college or serve two years in the military.

There is also a more abstract complaint about Lugar's genial disposition, something that has for years been viewed as a strength as he worked with Democrats. Tea Party activists want someone pugnacious, less willing to make deals with Democrats.

"We feel like we can do better and get someone who will listen to us more," said Monica Boyer, one of the co-founders of Hoosiers for Conservative Senate, a Tea Party-inspired group. "We feel he needs to be challenged."

Top Indiana Tea Party leaders recently met to coalesce behind one Lugar challenger. State Treasurer Richard Mourdock is expected to announce his candidacy this month.

Apart from some quiet efforts -- Lugar has met in private with Tea Party leaders, including Boyer, in his state -- Lugar has shown no signs that he will change his message.

"Senator Lugar just expected this. He's good-humored about it," said Mark Helmke, a senior adviser to Lugar. "He's going to continue to do what he's always done."

In Maine, which has a conventional primary, Snowe is unlikely to face the same purity test as Hatch. Her home state also has a much more moderate streak than Utah or Indiana. Still, her willingness to buck her party, particularly on social issues, has raised talk of a primary challenge.

The Tea Party Express has announced its disapproval of her votes for stimulus funding and her support of the Supreme Court nominations of Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor.

Snowe swept to a third term in 2006 with 74 percent of the vote. But four years later, she saw an unexpected conservative resurgence in her state, with Tea Party-backed Paul LePage capturing the governor's mansion and Republicans winning both chambers of the Legislature.

Snowe has played up her credentials as a fiscal conservative, and LePage, who counts Snowe's late husband as a mentor, has said he will back her, even if a more conservative challenger emerges.

That's payback for Snowe's backing of LePage's gubernatorial bid last year.

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