When David Kirkham answers the phone at his Provo, Utah, custom-made-auto company, the caller is sometimes a six-term U.S. senator who has more than specialty cars on his mind.
Kirkham, founder of a 10,000-member Utah Tea Party chapter, has been hearing a lot during the last 18 months from Orrin Hatch, who faces voters in 2012 and has been drawing fire from some fellow Republicans over his past work with Democrats. Hatch asks Kirkham what he thinks about the tax code, lawmakers “earmarking” home-state projects, and the senator’s push for a balanced-budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
“He has certainly pivoted toward Tea Party ideals in the past two years, so I think many people are certainly happy with what he’s done lately,” said Kirkham, 44, who helped topple three-term Utah Republican Senator Robert Bennett last year and says he still hasn’t made up his mind about Hatch.
That ambivalence owes to Hatch’s past willingness to work with Democrats on everything from bailing out the nation’s banks to a pathway to citizenship for some illegal immigrants to federal funding for stem-cell research. In 1997, he incensed Republican leaders by joining forces with Senator Ted Kennedy to create a children’s health program.
Hatch’s efforts now to win over the Tea Party activists underline the difficulty many Republicans up for re-election will have trying to manage the demands of a new movement that offers an energized voter base yet allows few compromises on conservative principles such as reining in government power.
His outreach to Tea Party groups is broad-based, including town-hall meetings and personal calls before Senate votes, and comes with a rightward tilt on policy by the legislator, considered one of the Senate’s great dealmakers.
Hatch, 76, is working to peel back parts of last year’s health-care overhaul, taking a tougher stance on immigration, and vowing to push back on any tax increases proposed by President Barack Obama.
Late last year, Hatch bowed to the movement’s call and dropped requests for more than $1 billion in home-state earmarks.
“Typically, he’s the one going out and making the deal and then other people could use him as political cover,” said Matthew Burbank, an associate professor of political science at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. The shift won’t make it easy for other lawmakers “to get things done in a fairly divided Congress.”
In an interview, Hatch said any impression that he’s pandering to a fledgling movement is off base, saying he’s only espousing views he has long held. He’s still seeking opportunities to work with Democrats, he said, pointing to a revamp of a patent law he has written with Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat.
Still, Hatch said that while he isn’t joining the Senate’s four-member Tea Party Caucus, he feels ideologically close to the activists he’s wooing -- except the few who shout him down at events.
“Do I identify with them? Yes,” he said. “Do I like them? Yes, for the most part.”
Hatch said he’s a “tough guy” determined to be re-elected, and that his key goal -- and top selling point to Utah activists -- is to take the gavel of the finance panel if Republicans win the Senate in 2012. With that, he said, he’ll battle with Democrats over cuts to Social Security and other entitlement programs, and over the health-care law.
“This boy is going to solve those problems, no matter how badly I’m hated in this doggone town,” Hatch said.
He has attended two Tea Party picnics, held eight town-hall meetings, and called activists, including before a December Senate vote on an $858 billion bill extending for two year the Bush-era tax cuts. Last week, he publicly apologized for supporting the 2008 financial bailout before a heckling crowd at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, addressing concerns about an issue that helped jettison Bennett’s 2010 Senate re-election bid.
Hatch’s closest embrace came Feb. 8, when he joined a televised town hall of the Tea Party Express, competing for the limelight with movement luminaries like Representative Michele Bachmann, a Minnesota Republican, and first-term Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican.
“We don’t need a break,” Hatch said when a moderator suggested one. “We might not look like much, but we’re a tough bunch, I’ll tell ya.”
Elected in 1976, he and another Tea Party target -- Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana -- are the Senate’s longest-serving Republicans. Hatch has often been at the forefront, helping to lead a defense of Supreme Court nominees Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas, facing down a Democratic majority in a months-long filibuster of a labor bill in 1978, and making a quixotic bid for the White House during the 2000 campaign.
He’s best known, though, for forging deals, such as the measure with Kennedy authorizing $24 billion to get states to offer health insurance to children of low-income working parents. He also split from many in his party by supporting embryonic stem-cell research, and once wrote a measure that would grant citizenship to some younger illegal immigrants.
That’s coming back to haunt him, as he faces 3,500 delegates at a Republican Party nominating convention in Utah next year, the same venue where Bennett was ousted.
Representative Jason Chaffetz, a second-term Republican backed by the Tea Party, is being urged by some activists to run. Senator Mike Lee, who swept past Bennett last May with Tea Party backing in the first of a series of 2010 Republican incumbent upsets, says he won’t endorse Hatch before the convention.
Hatch also risks the opposition of the Club for Growth, a Washington-based group that advocates smaller government and which spent $211,000 to help defeat Bennett.
“Hatch has been inconsistent,” said Chris Chocola, president of the Club for Growth. “We look for people with core principles, who stick with those principles.”
Amy Kremer, chairwoman of the Tea Party Express, also said Hatch can’t count on their support.
“A lot of people in the state are upset with him,” Kremer said. “No decisions have been made. We’re not providing cover for anybody.”
Some home-state activists say it may be good to keep Hatch around.
“Bennett was in the right place at the right time to be made an example of,” said Larry Jensen, the founder of a Salt Lake City Tea Party group who also gets calls from Hatch. “Hatch is in a different position -- he could help our cause.”
Hatch said he’s confident that more and more Tea Partiers will see that their views aren’t much different from his.
“I’ve been very open to them, and I’ve learned from them,” Hatch said. “When they’re right, they’ve got me.”