Hatch’s Senate Primary Hinges on Outside Groups’ Spending

FreedomWorks, a national group that supports the Tea Party movement, said it will keep working to defeat Utah Senator Orrin Hatch after he survived a contest three days ago to compete in the Republican primary. So far, it looks like a lonely battle.

FreedomWorks will begin a statewide grassroots effort to tap its 15,000 Utah members and other Tea Party activists to help elect Hatch’s primary rival, state Senator Dan Liljenquist, said Russ Walker, political director for FreedomWorks. At a party nominating convention April 21, Hatch fell 32 votes short of the majority required to avoid a June 26 primary. The group had spent almost $707,000 against the six-term Senate incumbent.

“We’re not walking away from it,” Walker said yesterday. “We want to win it.”

Hatch won 59.2 percent of the 3,902 delegate votes cast at the state Republican convention, less than the 60 percent needed to win the nomination outright. Liljenquist, who appealed to Tea Party activists, won 40.8 percent of the convention vote.

Hatch said yesterday in Washington he was “elated” by the results.

“A couple of months ago they didn’t think I’d make it through, so as far as we’re concerned it was a very good thing,” the senator told reporters. “You know, you wish you had gotten that extra nine-tenths, but it was a big statement.”

Club for Growth

Other conservative groups said they don’t have plans to get involved in the contest.

Barney Keller, a spokesman for the small-government group Club for Growth, said his organization is “watching” the race and hasn’t decided whether its super-PAC will spend money trying to defeat Hatch. The Tea Party Express, which donates to candidates who favor low taxes and less government spending, won’t get involved, its top political official said today.

“He’s a solid guy, so we have no interest in spending any energy or resources to defeat him,” said Sal Russo, political director of the Tea Party Express.

Hatch’s bid for a seventh term probably will rest on whether other groups with super-PACs play a role, said Jennifer Duffy, Senate editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

“Liljenquist on his own is unlikely to be able to really compete,” Duffy said. “He doesn’t have the money; he doesn’t have the name ID. If these outside groups don’t just pour a ton of money in, you have to call Hatch the favorite. But until they make that decision, it’s hard to say.”

Targeting Hatch

FreedomWorks was founded by former House Majority Leader Richard Armey, a Republican. The group is targeting the 78-year-old Hatch for defeat because he supported the 2008 bank bailout and a pathway to citizenship for some children of illegal immigrants. The group also opposes Hatch because of his work with the late Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts to create a children’s health program that expanded Medicaid.

FreedomWorks has spent money on television advertising, grassroots outreach and glossy brochures trying to defeat Hatch. The group operates a super-PAC that can raise unlimited amounts for federal elections, and has taken in $3.7 million for this year’s election.

Spokeswomen for Hatch and Liljenquist said today their campaigns are shifting from a strategy designed to win a super-majority of 4,000 Republican convention delegates to a statewide primary contest.

Small Contributions

Holly Richardson, a spokeswoman for Liljenquist’s campaign, said the state senator saw a swell of support after the April 21 convention that may help him in the primary. Since the results were announced, Liljenquist has raised more than $20,000 in donations, most of them small contributions of about $25.

“Orrin Hatch will outspend us, quite clearly, but we’ll raise enough money to be competitive,” Richardson said. “I think it will surprise a lot of people when we win in June.”

Richardson said Liljenquist can draw on help from 1,000 volunteers statewide and will focus on a grassroots, get-out-the-vote effort rather than an “air war” of TV and radio ads.

At Hatch campaign headquarters, aides were preparing to unleash a long-planned strategy in the event he didn’t win the primary outright at the convention, said Evelyn Call, his campaign spokeswoman. That includes the efforts of 20 full-time staffers who divided Utah into three regions and will oversee a turnout effort using a voter database built over a year and a half.

Structure in Place

“We’ve always planned accordingly,” Call said. “Most of the structure is in place.”

Heading into the primary contest, Hatch has raised considerably more than Liljenquist. By the end of March, Hatch reported raising $9.1 million and had $3.25 million left to spend. Liljenquist raised $469,276 and had $242,157 cash on hand.

Hatch has support from groups including Freedom Path, a non-profit issue-advocacy organization focused on shoring up his candidacy. American Action Network, a nonprofit group aiding Republican candidates, is airing pro-Hatch ads. That group was co-founded by former Republican Senator Norm Coleman of Minnesota and Fred Malek, a longtime Republican donor and chairman of Thayer Lodging Group Inc., an Annapolis, Maryland, real estate investing firm.

First elected in 1976, Hatch is in line to become chairman of the Senate Finance Committee if the Republicans win control of the chamber in November’s election.

Indiana Primary

Hatch’s fate may be tied to what happens in a May 8 Republican primary in Indiana, Duffy said. There, another six-term Republican senator, Richard Lugar, faces attacks from outside groups who support his opponent, Indiana state Treasurer Richard Mourdock. FreedomWorks’ super-PAC has spent $141,000 to defeat Lugar and $153,000 for Mourdock.

Club for Growth’s super-PAC has spent $317,000 to defeat Lugar, 80, and an equal amount to aid Mourdock, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign spending.

If Lugar loses his primary, it may embolden Tea Party activists and spark donations to groups that could seek to defeat Hatch, Duffy said.

“If they start matching Hatch dollar for dollar, then this is a race,” she said.

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