08.22.11

Hatch Can Breathe Easy

After months of talking a big game, Rep. Jason Chaffetz decides the process to unseat Sen. Orrin Hatch might just be too difficult. Daniel Stone on the Tea Party favorite’s decision.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) can breathe easier now that he’s a step closer to keeping his job.

Midday Monday, an aide to Utah GOP Rep. Jason Chaffetz, who was presumed to be plotting to wrest Hatch’s seat in next year’s election, said that Chaffetz would declare he wasn’t running against the senior senator.

The news was broken by The Salt Lake Tribune before an afternoon press conference where Chaffetz was expected to announce he’d stick with his seat in the House, which he won in 2008. A member of the new generation of Tea Party lawmakers, Chaffetz had received considerable attention, especially during the debt talks last month, which turned him into a national spokesman for his party.

With his visibility, Chaffetz had spent most of the year disparaging Hatch, building momentum to presumably dethrone him. "What do you call a senator that has been in office for ... years?” he asked a Utah crowd earlier this month, quoting a line Hatch used when he first ran for the Senate. “You call him home.”

But the calculus turned out to be too arduous for the novice lawmaker. Hatch has already built a considerable war chest that Chaffetz would have to overcome. When confronted by the fundraising disparity by a constituent during a town-hall meeting several weeks ago, Chaffetz nonchalantly replied, “I don’t care.”

But the calculus turned out to be too arduous for the novice lawmaker.

But the actual logistics of building support this late in a primary made the odds largely insurmountable, campaign officials have said.

Aides to Hatch had no immediate comment, but he has confronted the impact of Tea Party members on senior lawmakers like himself.

“Some are for me, some are not for me,” he told Newsweek and The Daily Beast in late June. “They tend to blame everybody for what's happening, sometimes over all the years of fighting here to try to get things under control. But most of them are just good, decent, very sincere people. And I'm making lots of inroads with them.”

The battle over the Utah seat was widely seen as representative of the larger dynamic within the Republican Party in which the far-right Tea Party has been targeting veteran conservative incumbents viewed as too moderate or too willing to work with Democrats.

Hatch, who’s been in the Senate for 34 years, has long been considered a staunch conservative but has also teamed up with the likes of Ted Kennedy. The prospect of a primary challenge from a more conservative candidate further illuminates how far the party’s pendulum has swung to the right.

With Patricia Murphy