Washington • Sen. Orrin Hatch and his campaign team have heard enough from their most vocal critics and are fighting back, lambasting the leaders of FreedomWorks and the Club for Growth as hypocrites and political has-beens struggling to remain relevant.
The groups counter that Hatch's broadside is "a sign of weakness" and an attempt to shift the conversation away from past votes that may derail his 2012 re-election bid.
This spat comes at a time when Hatch has no declared challenger but still has faced repeated criticisms from these tea party-affiliated groups, which argue that he is not conservative enough, a campaign reminiscent of the way they attacked former Utah Sen. Bob Bennett in 2010.
Their latest jabs focus on the debt-limit debate that consumed Washington in recent weeks. FreedomWorks created mailers and the Club released a television ad slamming Hatch for repeatedly voting to increase the amount of money the nation can borrow, which he has supported 16 times since joining the Senate in 1977.
But Hatch's staffers, led by campaign manager Dave Hansen, say they won't lie back and take such attacks, particularly from people who have long voting records of their own. FreedomWorks Chairman Dick Armey voted at least twice to raise the debt ceiling as a former House majority leader, and Club for Growth President Chris Chocola did so three times as a congressman from Indiana.
Hansen called them "extremely hypocritical," and he didn't stop there.
"In the case of Dick Armey, this is a retired congressman from somewhere in Texas who is trying to remain significant in the political realm," he said. "And with Chris Chocola, here is a guy who is a defeated congressman from Indiana. They are just trying to do what they can to promote their outside interests."
Hansen also noted that, on the debt fight, Hatch's position mirrored that of FreedomWorks and the Club for Growth. The groups supported a plan that would tie a balanced-budget amendment to the debt-limit increase. It passed the House and failed in the Senate.
Targeting Hatch • Chocola said he isn't ducking his past debt-ceiling votes and he agrees that the recent debt debate "is in a different universe" than similar efforts in the past. But at the same time, he said it doesn't make sense for Hatch to argue he can solve the problem now.
"We don't see how guys who have been here for 35 years say, 'Let me fix the problem now,' when they haven't fixed it for 35 years," Chocola said.
Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks, says the debt-ceiling criticism is just part of a broader critique that includes Hatch's support for things such as the Children's Health Insurance Program, earmarked spending and the prescription drug benefit in Medicare.
"For too long, Senator Hatch has been partnering with Democrats to expand the size of government," he said.
Hansen said Hatch didn't act by himself on these issues but the two groups are not attacking others who voted the same way. Most Republicans accepted earmarks at some time, including tea party favorite Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., and the Medicare prescription drug plan was pushed by President George W. Bush and was a hit among Republicans at the time. Chocola voted for it, and he accepted earmarks as well.
Chocola, who served two terms in the Housebefore losing his re-election bid in 2006, said his record isn't the issue.
"I'm not running for anything. I'm not asking people to vote for me. I'm irrelevant in this debate," he said. "It is, maybe, a sign of frustration and weakness if you start attacking us. There is no clearer example of attacking the messenger."
Kibbe said nearly the same thing about Armey that he isn't running for re-election.
Hatch's team is just trying to "change the subject," Kibbe said.
"Frankly, saying the excuse that 'he did it, too,' is the sort of excuse that kids use when they know they did something wrong," he said. "That's not a good enough argument, certainly not for the men and women of the tea party."
Fair criticism • But Jennifer Duffy, who analyzes Senate campaigns for the Cook Political Report, says Hatch's argument is fair.
"Outside groups come into the state and get in the campaign. It is not changing the subject to criticize them. It is actually staying right on the subject," she said. "I think that these groups have had the luxury of being able to dish it out but never having to actually take it. I'm sure they don't like it."
She said, as of now, the groups appear to be acting as surrogates for Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, their preferred candidate to take on Hatch.
But Chaffetz, who is considering a Senate run and may jump in later this year, has taken plenty of shots at Hatch on his own, including on the debt.
"We're in this mess because Orrin Hatch and others didn't hold the line before," he said. "I vowed that I would hold that line that I would not cave to that pressure. I think you could look to both parties through the last several decades and fault them both for ignoring this problem."
Daryl Acumen, of Cedar Hills, is an active Republican who considers Chaffetz his favorite House member, but he also rejects the argument that Hatch's past debt-limit votes are damning.
As a marketing analyst with Hewlett-Packard, Acumen understands budgets and has spent significant time looking at the nation's balance sheet.
He said a country that has grown wealthier over time has to up the debt limit when the economy hits a rough patch, which happened in the '80s, the early 2000s and this year.
"The debt limit of 1902 is not appropriate for 2011," he said.
Acumen has volunteered for Hatch once at the state convention earlier this year and he talked with a FreedomWorks staffer. He left baffled by the logic of trying to replace Hatch when he is the ranking Republican and could potentially be the chairman of the committee that writes tax policy and oversees Social Security and Medicare.
He said the nation is focused on those issues now, providing a chance to make needed changes.
"It is a great opportunity," Acumen said, "to have someone as conservative as Orrin Hatch as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, the committee that works on the stuff I care about in the year that it matters most."
If Hatch is defeated, moderate Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, will take his spot on the committee, and that has raised some eyebrows.
"Sometimes you have to actually question the Club's motives, too," said Duffy, a political handicapper. "Sometimes I think they go for, what I believe, is an easy win. They use this stuff to make money."
Duffy said it would make more ideological sense for the conservative group with a reputation for going after Republican incumbents to target Snowe, who is also up in 2012.
Chance of winning • Chocola said the Club has been a player in many long-shot races, such as Sen. Marco Rubio's come-from-behind win in Florida last year. He said the Club seeks to support "champions of economic freedom" in states where they have a decent chance of winning.
"Utah elected Mike Lee. Utah would elect a Jason Chaffetz," Chocola said. "I'm not sure Maine would elect a Mike Lee."
Hatch says he is in line with the Club's political positions, even if he has a problem with Chocola. And he predicts that the group will be quite happy if he wins re-election and the Republicans take over the Senate.
"They want Obamacare repealed, so do I. They want a balanced-budget amendment, so do I," Hatch said. "When I'm chairman, they can count on Utah to get it done."
But that won't be decided until November 2012. Until then, his campaign argues that FreedomWorks and the Club should get out of the Republican primaries and go after members of the other party.
"Why aren't they out there spending money and using their efforts to try to defeat liberal Democrats?" Hansen asks. "That's the irritating part about it and the most difficult to understand."
Who are these groups?
FreedomWorks and the Club for Growth are tea party-affiliated groups familiar with Utah's electoral terrain after they helped defeat Sen. Bob Bennett in 2010, a race eventually won by Sen. Mike Lee. But they do have some differences.
FreedomWorks, led by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, is known more for mobilizing activists. The group sponsored a "Retire Hatch" table at the state GOP convention in June and has trained tea party leaders in the state.
The Club for Growth, headed by former Rep. Chris Chocola, R-Ind., is a group focused on conservative fiscal policy that has a reputation for targeting Republican incumbents it thinks are weak on their issues. The Club has already created TV ads slamming Sen. Orrin Hatch.
The Hatch campaign says it is not behind a website attacking Armey and FreedomWorks for opposing the senator, even though it levels many of the same criticisms.
The site, whoisdickarmey.com, popped up recently, with its creators hidden behind a proxy server.
Under a section titled "about us," it says the site was created "by real Republicans in America who have known Dick Armey and FreedomWorks for a long time and couldn't sit on the sidelines while they tried to mislead voters in Utah."