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Kennedy Pal Goes AWOL as Tea Party Cashes In: Margaret Carlson

It’s painful to lose a re-election campaign, no matter what. It’s even more painful if you won 69 percent of the vote in the prior election.

It’s enough to make a grown man cry, as Utah Senator Robert Bennett did the day he lost the Republican nomination last May. As stolid as the Wasatch Mountains, the low-key, 6-foot-6 Bennett held his seat for 18 years, winning extra federal funding and support for the 2002 Olympic Games in Salt Lake City and many other worthy Utah projects -- toxic accomplishments in the new earmark-phobic environment.

“It took me 24, OK maybe 48, hours to get over it,” Bennett tells me as we walk to a lunch in Brussels hosted by the German Marshall Fund, one of his affiliations since being involuntarily retired from Congress. He’s adjusted to his new life teaching and consulting -- who wouldn’t like Europe in the spring and not having to beg people for campaign money? -- and no longer loves the institution he left.

“I’d gotten tired of being told to plot against Democrats to make them look bad, to drop my health-care bill with Ron Wyden,” the Democratic senator from Oregon. “The games were getting old.”

Bennett could be the canary in Utah’s mine. The state’s senior senator, the spotlight-loving, organ-playing Orrin Hatch, 77, is one of the Tea Party’s top targets in 2012. Polls show him losing to almost any challenger. Republican Representative Jason Chaffetz, among others, is mulling whether to take him on. The senator who beat Bennett, Mike Lee, hasn’t endorsed Hatch. It’s ugly out there.

Consorting With Enemy

Hatch, with 34 years of Senate service, suffers the drawbacks endured by a senior anybody: earmarks, “ranking member” and bipartisanship are bad words. Bennett had a great statewide network and found out, as he puts it, that he was in “a contest to see who could run the worst campaign.” Consorting with the enemy, as Bennett did on the Wyden-Bennett health-care bill, is punishable by banishment.

That’s why you don’t hear Hatch boasting of his long friendship with Ted Kennedy, or the watercolor Kennedy painted for Hatch’s Capitol office, or their co-sponsored legislation that provided health coverage for low-income children. To conservatives, providing vaccinations is an impermissible expansion of government.

As for President Barack Obama’s health-care overhaul, Hatch, who supported a bill in 1993 that also would have required Americans to buy coverage, now calls Obamacare unconstitutional and, in a lapse of Mormon decorum, “an awful piece of crap” and a “dumbass program.”

Shift on Immigration

To play to immigration anxieties, he voted against the so- called Dream Act, a benign measure that would permit children brought to the U.S. illegally before age 16 to gain legal residency by attending college or serving in the military. He once was a co-sponsor.

To offset his vote for Elena Kagan to be solicitor general, he voted against her, and loudly, for the Supreme Court. The third-leading seeker of earmarks in the Senate in 2010, he now favors a moratorium. Greater government oversight of food safety? No. Balanced-budget amendment? You bet he’s introduced one.

Hatch is also disarming the enemy by hiring them, including Jason Powers, the consultant who guided Lee to victory. It may sound like a form of legal bribery, but Hatch is paying Tea Partiers who become “organizers” of his campaign $2,500 a month.

‘Made a Mistake’

And he’s groveled. Everywhere Tea Partiers go, so goes Hatch. Unable at first to nab a formal invitation to join the headliners, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul and Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann, at a Tea Party Express town hall in Washington last month, Hatch invited himself. At the Conservative Political Action Conference, he was heckled over his vote for the bank bailout and said, “I probably made a mistake voting for it.”

To forestall similar mistakes, Hatch regularly seeks the advice of the head of the 10,000-member Utah Tea Party, David Kirkham, owner of Kirkham Motorsports in Provo, which makes a limited-edition aluminum car that James Bond would be proud to drive. Kirkham holds caucus training meetings among his $50,000 Cobras, teaching folks how to take over the arcane nominating process. He’s warmed to Hatch, a personable guy, and says the senator has drunk enough tea laced with apologies for past heresies that it’s no longer iced.

Other Options

“There are worse candidates than Hatch,” Kirkham allows, “Jon Huntsman, for one.” The reference is to the former Utah governor who is stepping down April 30 as Obama’s ambassador to China. All bets are off, however, if Chris Herrod, a tightfisted, anti-immigration, global-warming-denying state representative, runs. The Tea Party would universally line up behind him, Kirkham predicts, and there’d be another Bennett in the making.

In Brussels, Bennett the former senator still attracts a crowd -- at least until a current senator, such as Mark Warner of Virginia, enters the room. That’s how power works.

Though he’s endorsing Hatch, you couldn’t blame Bennett if he’d feel partly vindicated were Hatch to lose. It would be nice to believe it wasn’t personal, even if he’s already over it.

(Margaret Carlson, author of “Anyone Can Grow Up: How George Bush and I Made It to the White House” and former White House correspondent for Time magazine, is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

To contact the writer of this column: Margaret Carlson in Washington at mcarlson3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this column: James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net

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