DRAPER, Utah — In 1976, Orrin Hatch won his Senate seat by campaigning on a famously catchy slogan: “What do you call a senator who’s served in office for 18 years? You call him home.”
Now it’s coming back to haunt him.
On Wednesday evening, in the first of two debates with his two main challengers for the Republican nomination, the same argument that propelled Hatch to victory nearly four decades ago was used against him, forcing the longest serving politician in Utah history to defend his bid for a seventh Senate term.
Former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist, a baby-faced one-term lawmaker who poses the most potent threat to Hatch, sought to force the incumbent to answer for the explosion of federal spending during his long tenure.
“You’ve had 18 years on the Senate Finance Committee, senator, and in that time we’ve expanded these problems, not retracted them. We’ve expanded spending, not pulled back,” Liljenquist charged. “I guess the question I have is, ‘What’s going to be different next time?’”
“I guess you haven’t seen who’s been in charge of that Finance Committee most of that time,” Hatch replied, invoking what became a standard answer — blaming the Democrats in power. “We’re going to change it. We’re going to take over. And I think it’s going to take Mitt Romney and Orrin Hatch to do it.”
For the most part, Hatch went unscathed during the 90-minute debate as he repeatedly stressed the 36 years of seniority that could make him chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee.
While Liljenquist packed the most energy on the stage and won consistent and raucous rounds of applause inside a high school auditorium about 25 minutes south of Salt Lake City, it was evident that he was reluctant to swing too hard at Hatch. A third candidate, state Rep. Chris Herrod — mostly a peripheral player in the contest — lauded Hatch’s service and asked to be judged solely on his own accomplishments.
Both seemed to recognize the delicate and difficult balancing act they were confronted with: how to respectfully assail a genial, well-liked party elder without coming off as too brash and vituperative. And it showed in Liljenquist’s kid glove approach.
“Thought Dan did very well, but you can’t hit Grandpa,” quipped one Utah GOP operative who backs Liljenquist, referring to the 78-year-old incumbent.
When Liljenquist offered a salient critique of Hatch’s vote in favor of President Bush’s Medicare prescription drug expansion, he appeared to undercut his own argument just a few minutes later by saying he didn’t have a problem with the substance of the program either.
Hatch, on the other hand, seized on the controversial vote to underscore yet another benefit he’s delivered to constituents over the years — he argued that the legislation has helped lengthen lives by decades.
“It’s one reason why we’re now approaching 100 years of age. If you lived to age 74, you’re going to live to age 90 and maybe even 100,” Hatch asserted.
On No Child Left Behind — another piece of legislation that’s become anathema to the GOP base and where Hatch’s ‘yes’ vote would seem to make him ripe for an attack — the senator escaped without a scrape, turning a defensive answer into a red meat applause line.
“Most Republicans voted for it. I voted skeptically for it, skeptically. Of course, I have to say as I watched it over the years I became very, very convinced it wasn’t a good thing,” he said. “But if I had my doggone way, we’d get rid of the Department of Education.”
Hatch noted he voted against re-authorization of the Bush-era program but was never challenged on why he was wrong the first time.
While the 36-year-old Liljenquist spent most of his time talking about Hatch’s past legislative sins, the incumbent continually emphasized what he would do in the future with a GOP-controlled Senate.
“I’m the vice chairman of the National Senatorial Campaign Committee. I’ve raised millions of dollars. At the NRSC we all work our guts out and frankly we’re going to get the majority this time,” he said. “Frankly when we do, what all three of us say needs to be corrected, will be corrected.”
Hatch essentially made the same arguments in discussing the possible passage of a balanced budget amendment, eliminating wasteful programs and protecting the country’s space program: With more time and enhanced power, I’ll deliver.
Liljenquist sought to tap into the anti-incumbent fervor that swept the country in 2010, dusting off the case Hatch himself made back in 1976.
“This race may just come down to this one question: Is seniority so important that we feel forced to make the same decision with the same people and the same system that got us into this mess?,” he said in what was possibly his most effective line of the night. “Just like in 1976, there’s a time for new leadership and that time is now. These is no politician in this country that is too big to fail.”
Hatch and Liljenquist will meet for another debate on April 16, just five days before the state convention where approximately 4,000 GOP delegates will convene to choose their nominee. If Hatch is able to secure 60 percent of the vote there, he can avoid a June primary altogether.
Because Hatch is not considered vulnerable in the general election, the convention vote could be the determinative event for him — two years ago, former Sen. Bob Bennett was denied renomination after finishing third in balloting.
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