Utah Sources: Hatch Likely to be Challenged for GOP Nomination

Posted: Jan 25, 2011 9:09 AM
We told you about this possibility last week, when a bombshell poll out of Utah showed six term incumbent Senator Orrin Hatch trailing two potential primary challengers.  I just spent the past weekend in Utah and had the opportunity to chat with a number of plugged-in Republican sources, all of whom told me they are confident Hatch will face at least one serious challenger for the GOP nomination heading into 2012.  That reality has already led to a shake-up in Utah politics:

The state Republican Central Committee on Saturday elected Thomas Wright as the party’s new chairman.

Wright, chairman of the Salt Lake County Republican Party, replaces Dave Hansen, who announced in December he would resign to work on Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch’s re-election campaign.

Full disclosure: I've known Thomas Wright since he invited me to speak at the Salt Lake County Republican Lincoln Day dinner last year.  He is a terrific guy and a will be a dynamic and capable state chairman, but he'll be the first to tell you the only reason he's taken the reins at this early date is his predecessor's decision to jump over to coordinate Hatch's defense of the seat he's occupied since the late 1970s.  Hatch "saw what happened to [Former Senator Bob] Bennett last year and isn't taking any chances," one source said.

Still, despite his gold-standard name recognition and high prestige in Utah, Hatch may be vulnerable next year.  Utah Republicans select their nominees via bare-knuckled, and extremely conservative, conventions.  Therefore, incumbents are not nearly as fortified by money and name ID as they would be in traditional primaries, where voters decide the outcome.  Utah Republicans are only as safe as convention delegates believe they should be.

So who might mount a challenge to the state's iconic senior Senator?  The poll that alerted the nation to the possible political storm brewing over Salt Lake City mentioned two other names in a hypothetical three-way primary: Popular former Governor Jon Huntsman Jr. (currently President Obama's ambassador to China) and Congressman Jason Chaffetz.  Several of the people I spoke to dismissed the possibility of Huntsman challenging Hatch, despite his strong showing in last week's poll.  "[Huntsman] would run for president before he ran for [Hatch's] seat," I was told.  That leaves Chaffetz, who was described as ambitious, well-liked, and quite conservative.  Several sources picked Chaffetz as the likeliest candidate to make a run at toppling Hatch. 

Another name that came up independently on a number occasions from several different sources was Dan Liljenquist, a State Senator from Davis County.  Liljenquist has attracted national attention for his successful public pension reform package passed by the legislature last year -- which last week won plaudits from the Wall Street Journal.  "Keep an eye on Dan.  His star is rising.  He might be the guy [to beat Hatch] if he runs," one insider told me.