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Tea Party Targets Lugar, Hatch 70 Years of Senate Tenure

Sen. Richard Lugar
U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar, Republican from Indiana, delivers an opening statement during a hearing on March 17, 2011, in Washington, D.C. Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Senators Orrin Hatch of Utah and Richard Lugar of Indiana share a big headache: their 35-year careers in the chamber are being targeted for a swift end by FreedomWorks, a group that supports the Tea Party and operates a super-political action committee.

First elected in 1976, Hatch and Lugar are the Senate’s longest-serving Republicans. They will be committee chairmen if re-elected this fall and their party takes control of the Senate in January.

FreedomWorks, which favors smaller government, has spent more than $735,000 on TV ads, grassroots outreach and glossy brochures seeking to defeat the two senators. It says both men vote too often with Democrats to expand the scope of government. The group pledges to spend more, with Hatch facing delegates at a Republican nominating convention April 21 and Lugar running in a May 8 primary.

“I would like to win the fight against at least one of them, but I think there’s a pathway to victory in both states,” Russ Walker, FreedomWorks vice president of political campaigns, said at the group’s Washington headquarters last week.

The voting will be a test of the Tea Party’s ability to influence Senate primaries as it did two years ago in such states as Delaware, Alaska and Nevada, said Jennifer Duffy, an editor at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

“It’s critical because without a success the movement will be quickly written off as a fad,” she said.

‘Just Plain Bullies’

Hatch and Lugar said they are maneuvering to thwart the efforts of FreedomWorks, which Hatch, 78, called a cluster of “radical right-wing libertarians.”

“They’re just plain bullies and obnoxious,” Hatch said in an interview, adding that he’s “cautiously optimistic” he is lining up solid support among new party delegates in his home state that include Tea Party activists.

Lugar, 79, said: “We’re waging a good campaign, and I’m very hopeful of success.”

Founded by former Republican House Majority Leader Richard Armey of Texas, FreedomWorks has grown into an operation that claims 1.6 million members. Its super-PAC, which raises unlimited amounts for federal elections, says it has taken in $3.5 million for this election. It is the only major conservative group making independent expenditures against both senators.

Hatch is slated to take the gavel of the Finance Committee, which oversees tax and trade policy, while Lugar would be chairman of the Foreign Relations panel if Republicans win control of the Senate in November. Currently the party holds 47 of the chamber’s 100 seats.

2008 Bank Bailout

The senators have been targeted by the Tea Party for supporting the 2008 bank bailout and a pathway to citizenship for some children of illegal immigrants. Hatch also is being opposed because of his work with the late Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts to create a children’s health program.

Republicans are favored to keep Hatch’s Utah seat if he loses the nomination. Those running include former state Senator Dan Liljenquist. Lugar’s seat may be competitive even if he prevails in his primary against Indiana Treasurer Richard Mourdock, said Nathan Gonzales, editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report. The winner will face Democratic Representative Joe Donnelly.

2010 Utah Convention

Hatch is FreedomWorks’s biggest target, with the group spending more than $626,000 in an attempt to defeat him. Hatch wants to avoid the fate of former three-term Utah Senator Robert Bennett, who was toppled at the 2010 state convention because he didn’t win enough votes to make the ballot for a two-candidate primary race. Republican Mike Lee, backed by the Tea Party, ended up winning Bennett’s seat.

FreedomWorks, meanwhile, has spent almost $34,000 against Lugar and $75,000 in support of Mourdock. More expenditures are coming by early May, Walker said.

Lugar is more vulnerable than Hatch, said Duffy of the Cook Report. Hatch has support from delegates to the party convention elected at caucuses this month, she said. Hatch will avoid a June 26 primary if he wins at least 60 percent of delegate votes, she said, adding that she sees little risk of Hatch being cast aside like Bennett.

Lugar had an embarrassing setback March 15 when a Democratic-dominated local election board determined he is ineligible to vote in the state because he sold his Indiana home in 1977. Lugar points to past legal opinions that said he’s a legal resident, and he is weighing an appeal.

Club for Growth

Also, he’s facing the likelihood of attack ads from other conservative groups. The anti-tax group Club for Growth has endorsed Mourdock and on March 23 bought TV time in Indianapolis and two other Indiana cities, said a political consultant with knowledge of the purchases who requested anonymity. Barney Keller, a Club for Growth spokesman, said he can’t confirm where ads will run or the cost of what will be a “substantial” purchase of anti-Lugar ads. The group is still examining Hatch’s race, Keller said.

Tea Party Express political director Sal Russo said his group sees Hatch as a “solid conservative” who has apologized for supporting the bank bailout. Not so for Lugar, he said, who the group views as not contrite enough, and it probably will air ads against him, he said.

“He continues to be indignant with Tea Party groups and he’s not willing to recognize that our economic situation is worsening,” Russo said of Lugar.

Get Out the Vote

To combat that, Lugar campaign volunteers have called an estimated 1 million Indiana voters urging their support of the senator, said Andy Fisher, a spokesman for the campaign. A nine-person field team leads a get-out-the-vote effort.

The Lugar campaign has run ads on TV network stations 2,765 times at a cost of $748,180 through March 26, according to Kantar Media’s CMAG, which tracks advertising.

Hatch’s efforts are more extensive. A 25-person Hatch staff is phoning Utah voters and has been meeting with possible delegates over the past year, said Kitty Dunn, the campaign’s field operations manager.

“We did it aggressively and consistently in pushing his message,” Dunn said.

Hatch has met with Utah Tea Party activists at picnics and town hall meetings, and in private discussions. In coming weeks, Hatch will attend most of 29 planned Republican county meetings and meet with as many of the 4,000 delegates as possible, Dunn said. His campaign aired 329 spots on Utah network broadcast stations by March 26, at a cost of $264,030, according to CMAG.

‘Notch in Their Belt’

Some of the delegates say FreedomWorks has gone too far in trying to defeat Hatch.

“They tried to come into our state and put another notch in their belt,” said Lisa Thorpe, a delegate who lives in St. George and said she has decided to support Hatch. “They were successful with Senator Bennett two years ago, and they’re trying to do it again with Senator Hatch because it helps their fundraising efforts.”

Walker said it will be worth the cost of this effort if his group ensures the election of more Republican senators who favor low taxes and spending cuts.

“The key is: Are we creating a fiscally conservative caucus and are we moving policy in Washington?” he said.

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