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Washington • Tea party activists held an angry protest Monday on the steps of the National Republican Senatorial Committee building over the group's support for Sen. Orrin Hatch's re-election campaign.
The group of about 40 protesters, including 16 Utahns, blocked the entrance to the NRSC's building near the Capitol and demanded the campaign organization stay out of Utah's race until the party picks an eventual nominee next summer.
"They need to understand senators don't elect senators. The people elect senators," said Jacqueline Smith of Coalville, the founder of a tea party group called the STAR Forum.
"The incumbents are not always the right choice."
The NRSC is an organization made up of Republican incumbents. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, leads the group and has asked Hatch to serve as its vice chairman, a role he has held for the past three years. In that position, Hatch has been a lead fundraiser, bringing in hundreds of thousands of dollars that mostly support Republicans running in general elections against Democrats, but in some cases have supported an incumbent being challenged by other Republicans.
As an example, former Utah Sen. Bob Bennett received a maximum contribution $42,600 from the NRSC in his failed 2010 re-election bid. The Senate seat was eventually won by Republican Mike Lee, a tea party favorite.
FreedomWorks, a D.C.-based umbrella organization that recently announced its opposition to Hatch's 2012 campaign, subsidized the travel of about 160 tea party supporters representing 30 states for a weekend in Washington, D.C., where they received training on campaign tactics and conservative policies. Utah, with 16 activists had the largest delegation.
The organization also planned Monday's protest where activists held "Retire Hatch" campaign signs and chanted "people choose, not the party" and "B'Orrin Hatch."
"We are of the opinion that he doesn't represent us any longer," said Helen Watts of Layton, citing Hatch's past votes to raise the debt ceiling and his support for the Troubled Asset Relief Program. And she made it clear his recent support for items near and dear to the tea party, such as the recent "Cut, Cap and Balance" pledge wouldn't change her mind.
"It seems like around election time, he kind of panders," she said.
Watts says she does not have a preferred replacement for Hatch. Potential Republican challengers include Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, and state Sen. Dan Liljenquist, R-Bountiful.
Smith and David Kirkham, founder of the Utah Tea Party, represented the protesters in a meeting with NRSC Executive Director Rob Jesmer, but left frustrated.
Kirkham summed up Jesmer's reaction this way: "Your cause is just. I can do nothing for you."
The NRSC didn't back away from its backing of Hatch, with spokesman Brian Walsh saying: "Few people have worked harder than Orrin Hatch to help Republicans win back the Senate next year and Senator Cornyn is proud to support him."
Cornyn participated in a fundraiser for Hatch two weeks ago in New York, which was organized by David Koch, a billionaire who has contributed greatly to conservative causes and tea party groups.
Hatch's campaign manager, Dave Hansen, dismissed the FreedomWorks-organized protest.
"They are just trying to generate some publicity for their group," he said. "The NRSC has been very supportive of the senator; if they choose to give that's fine."
While the tea party activists argued that the NRSC is a group of Washington insiders meddling in Utah's Senate race, Hansen argued that FreedomWorks is an out-of-state group led by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey.
"What this is is Dick Armey sitting down in Texas trying to manipulate the system," Hansen said. "Dick Armey is not going to tell the people of Utah who to vote for Utahns will make that decision."