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March 14th, 2012 12:40 pm
Utah Conservatives Looking for an Escape Hatch
Posted by Troy Senik Print

Though you won’t hear much about it in the press, tomorrow will be a big day for the Tea Party movement. That’s because it will be the day that Republican voters caucus throughout Utah to pick their delegates to the state convention — delegates who, in turn, will choose which candidates to put on the Beehive State’s June primary ballot.

This is momentous because there’s a big push by Tea Partiers — with FreedomWorks leading the charge — to unseat incumbent Republican Senator Orrin Hatch and replace him with a more conservative alternative. This is how Politico frames it:

The group’s tactics are the latest chapter of the debate still hounding Republicans as they try to win a majority on Capitol Hill this November: Should they purge their own to find fresh blood who will be less willing to seek bipartisan compromises by straying from conservative principles? Or should they unite behind the most electable candidate and train all their fire power on Democrats?

Allow me to answer both of those questions: yes.

It’s all a matter of political prudence. One of the lessons of the 2010 midterm senate races was the importance of finding the right candidate for the right jurisdiction — and that means different things in different places. In Utah, for instance, which is the most Republican state in the nation, it was utterly sensible to replace incumbent Bob Bennett (not exactly a liberal, but not really a constitutional conservative either) with Tea Party darling Mike Lee, knowing that Lee could easily carry the general election in the fall. The Tea Party was similarly shrewd in getting behind Marco Rubio in Florida, Ron Johnson in Wisconsin, and Rand Paul in Kentucky.

There were a few missteps, however. The hyper-conservative Sharron Angle was a poor choice for the swing state of Nevada, where either Sue Lowden or Danny Tarkanian (both of whom would have voted as conventional conservatives) would have stood a better chance at defeating Harry Reid. Even less suited for her contest was Christine O’Donnell, the conservative firebrand running in deep-blue Delaware. O’Donnell’s primary opponent, the moderate-to-liberal Republican Mike Castle, would doubtlessly have taken many votes as a U.S. Senator that would have made conservatives squirm — but fewer than the eventual winner, Democrat Chris Coons, who Castle likely would have beaten had he been the nominee.

So what does this principle mean for Utah? Hatch, like Bennett before him, has been an able public servant, who has, most of the time, been in conservatism if not exactly of conservatism. Were he from a swing state where moving to the right could be an electoral death sentence, then that would probably be a sufficient argument for retaining him. That’s not the case in Utah, however. And the state’s conservatives are going to have a hard time turning down the opportunity to elect another senator as consistently principled in his defense of limited government as Mike Lee.

It doesn’t help either that the best argument against Hatch comes from Hatch. I’ll let Politico have the final word:

In Utah, FreedomWorks distributed a 44-page brochure to 37,000 potential convention-goers, highlighting Hatch’s positions over the years on earmarks, the bank bailout and deals with Ted Kennedy over a child health care law.

On the inside page of the brochure is a quote from Hatch during his first campaign in 1976 against 18-year incumbent Sen. Frank Moss: “What do you call a senator who’s served in office for 18 years? You call him home.”

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