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Washington • Sen. Orrin Hatch has spent more time endearing himself to David Kirkham than any other tea party activist in Utah, but it was all for naught.
Kirkham, the leading voice within Utah's tea party movement, has joined the fight against Hatch's 2012 reelection bid.
"I think we need to trade up," Kirkham said Tuesday. "I am looking for someone new."
This marks the first time he has publicly opposed the senator, though a number of Utah tea party supporters and national groups such as FreedomWorks and the Club for Growth have already announced a "Retire Hatch" campaign.
Kirkham's comments came at an awkward time, shortly after he testified in a Senate Finance Committee hearing on the need to simplify the tax code. He appeared at the personal invitation of Hatch.
The senator's spokeswoman Antonia Ferrier said Hatch invited Kirkham to speak because of his small-business experience, not his tea party activities.
"He's a very successful businessman and he did a tremendous job explaining the day-to-day reality of taxes on hiring, business expansion and productivity," she said.
After the hearing, Hatch posed for photos with a group of Utah tea party organizers, who just the day before led an anti-Hatch rally on the steps of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Kirkham participated in that rally.
Hatch has fostered a unique relationship with Kirkham, calling him on a near-weekly basis, mostly to talk about legislation and public policy. Kirkham described their conversations as cordial and professional. He also said the tea party has little criticism of Hatch's votes in the past three years, but couldn't look past some of his votes in the 30 years prior, including his support for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, earmarks and a children's health insurance program.
"Over 34 years, he has made some absolutely terrible votes that many of us are going to be extremely hard-pressed to get past," Kirkham said.
Hatch seemed caught off-guard when told of Kirkham's decision to oppose his bid for a seventh Senate term.
"He didn't say that to me," Hatch said. "And I don't believe he is going to be against me in the end, either."
The senator said he has reached out to Kirkham because of his role within the Utah tea party. Kirkham, the owner of Kirkham Motorsports, financed some early tea party rallies and has become the spokesman for the state's numerous tea party groups.
So far no Republican has announced a campaign against Hatch, but his most likely challenger is Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, who has privately told Republican insiders that he will jump into the race later this year. Kirkham and Jacqueline Smith, another Utah tea party leader, said Chaffetz's record will also be scrutinized but they are partial to the two-term congressman.
"We like him," Kirkham said.
That said, they acknowledged that a few people with strong tea party ties will support Hatch in the state Republican Convention, and the senator has even hired people from their groups, such as Michelle Scharf, who are now working on his campaign. The tea party leaders may have made up their mind, but Hatch isn't ready to give up his attempts to recruit them.
"I have reached out to a lot of the leaders of the tea party and, if I'm not mistaken, have made a lot of headway," he said.