Hatch is working to fix his tea party problem
Politics • Hiring of some of the group's activists is seen as a sellout by critics.
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Washington • In the midst of a massive conservative gathering in the nation's capital last month, two tea party activists joined other Utahns in a tense discussion with Sen. Orrin Hatch.

One left determined to support anyone but Utah's longest-serving senator when he runs for re-election in 2012. The other joined the senator's payroll.

Hatch is well aware that he has a tea party problem, and one of the ways his campaign is trying to solve it is by hiring some of the movement's organizers.

"There is no question that a lot of good talent came out of the 2010 election," said Dave Hansen, Hatch's campaign manager. "It is nice to have new people involved."

What Hansen sees as recruiting bright and energetic staff, Darcy Van Orden sees as bribery. She is a co-founder of Utah Rising, a consortium of the state's tea party groups, and when Hatch's staff offered her a job, she flatly refused.

"He is going out and paying people $2,500 a month to recruit delegates, and what I want him to know is that the tea party is not for sale," she said. "He has offered me a job. Gosh, he has offered everyone a job in the tea party."

Hansen acknowledged that he did try to hire Van Orden and the campaign does pay organizers $2,500 per month. He plans on hiring more Republicans but he says the goal is to identify and support Hatch's backers in the convention, not buy off opponents.

"We are trying to hire the best people we can to fill the positions we need," said Hansen. "We fully recognize and understand that the tea party is not for sale."

Van Orden went to D.C. with Michelle Scharf and a group of other Utah tea party activists to attend the Conservative Political Action Committee conference, known as CPAC, an annual event that attracts some of the biggest names in Republican circles, including a few presidential hopefuls.

Scharf is a member of a political group Van Orden started, and she worked on Morgan Philpot's campaign against Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, which fell 4 percentage points short.

Hatch's pitch • The two joined a sitdown with Hatch at CPAC where the senator made his campaign pitch. He told them he's a strong conservative with the seniority to help rein in federal debt, since he's the top Republican on the Finance Committee. The tea party supporters challenged him on some of his past legislation and votes, including his bill to create the Children's Health Insurance Plan to provide coverage for low-income children. The group felt this bill was an unwarranted extension of the nation's entitlement programs. The conversation, while tense at times, remained civil and is but one of dozens of attempts by Hatch to reach out to those who helped beat former Sen. Bob Bennett and help elect Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, in his place.

Hatch has called activists like Van Orden before votes, met in small groups and even participated in a tea party town hall meeting in Washington, D.C.

"I appreciate the outreach, but at the same time, his only goal is to keep his own power and get re-elected," Van Orden said. "If Hatch were re-elected, he would be a lame duck and have no accountability from the people."

But Scharf feels differently. She believes Hatch would follow through with his promises to fix the nation's fiscal problems even if it left him the least liked senator in Washington.

"I feel like this is part of the movement. We all say we want these politicians to listen to us, to hear us and be involved," Scharf said. "I am a tea party member. I consider myself a tea party member. I just decided to support him."

She has taken Hatch's offer and now works for the campaign, recruiting delegates who will vote on the party's nominee in the statewide convention. The decision wasn't an easy one and she knows that many of her friends in tea party circles won't agree with her. Still, she says there isn't the same momentum to oust Hatch in 2012 as there was to beat Bennett last year.

"I would say a good third of the tea party out here is supportive of Hatch," she said. "He is a good man, an honest man. Do I agree with every vote? No, but I want to support him this time around."

Likely rivals • Hatch's most likely Republican opponents are Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, and state Sen. Dan Liljenquist, R-Bountiful. While neither man has announced his candidacy, both are considering a run and have consulted with officials at FreedomWorks about a potential campaign.

FreedomWorks is a national group with deep pockets that has weighed in on conservative challenges throughout the country, such as Lee's successful campaign last year. FreedomWorks employees say they're interested in supporting a conservative challenge in Utah, but they have not yet decided to jump into the race.

Chaffetz warned Utah's tea party faithful to carefully consider Hatch's overtures.

"It's human nature to want to support someone who is trying to be nice to you, but when it comes time to vote in [the 2012 Republican convention], it comes down to policy and principle," he said.

But some believe Hatch has aligned himself with the tea party's mission, even if he hasn't always voted the way they would have liked. Beyond Scharf, Hatch's campaign has hired Evelyn Call and Julian Babbitt, who was chairman of the Republican Liberty Caucus of Utah. Both have surprised the tea party community by siding with Hatch.

Call is relatively new to Utah politics, and was spurred to get involved in the 2010 Senate race by a frustration with the direction of the country. She decided to volunteer on Lee's campaign and worked for a short time as a paid staffer. She never joined a tea party group, but says she agrees with the platform of limited government and less federal spending.

"I feel like Senator Hatch is listening," she said, describing Bennett as less receptive. "I feel he has really been trying hard to meet with tea party people."

Call recently took a job as the senator's social media director on his campaign in part because she's concerned that having two new senators would leave the state with little clout in Washington.

But Van Orden sees a different motive in the new positions held by people like Scharf and Call. She believes it has more to do with a paycheck than politics.

"These people were not proponents of Hatch until he offered them a job," she said.

mcanham@sltrib.com