Orrin Hatch banks on Finance chairmanship ahead of Utah primary

SALT LAKE CITY—Did you hear Sen. Orrin Hatch could be the next Senate Finance Committee chairman?

Delegates in Utah sure have.

The potential for Hatch, a 36-year Senate veteran, to rise from ranking Republican to chairman of his committee if Republicans win the Senate this fall is the major message the Utah senator is impressing upon delegates ahead of Saturday's GOP convention.

"No other committee is as important as the Finance Committee," Hatch told a group of about 50 voting delegates gathered here Thursday night for a campaign open house. "I'll be the first Utah chairman in 80 years. It's important. And I doubt in our lifetime you'll ever see another Utah chairman."

Hatch has hit home that same point during recent Senate debates and in his campaign ads. And it's been echoed by one of his most high-profile supporters: Mitt Romney. "When I'm president, I'll need Orrin Hatch as Senate Finance Chair to help me restore America as a land of opportunity and prosperity," reads a Romney quote on Hatch's campaign website, which also outlines all the ways in which the committee is key to the economy, the budget and the health care entitlement program.

But what if Republicans don't win the Senate? One of Hatch's Republican challengers, former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist, is making the case that Republicans probably won't win a majority, making Hatch's main point moot. "Democrats are likely to keep the Senate," Liljenquist said at a town hall Wednesday night in Ogden, Utah. And he added that Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo is more likely than Hatch to win the chairmanship.

But Hatch told Yahoo News in an interview prior to his open house Thursday night that he's confident Republicans can win the Senate. "There's no reason why we can't win the Senate and we will," Hatch said, after noting his role as vice chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), which coordinates party involvement in this year's Senate elections. "But even if we didn't, being the Republican leader on the Finance Committee is a very powerful position."

Hatch told the audience here Thursday night that if Democrats do maintain their majority "You'd better have me there, or they're going to walk all over us."

Anecdotally, the message appears to be resonating with delegates, who will choose their Senate nominee this weekend.

"For a little state like Utah, to have somebody chair of that committee would just be a wonderful opportunity to channel that money where we want it to go," Hatch supporter Pat Cory of Salt Lake City told Yahoo News Thursday. She said the potential chairmanship is the major reason why she and her husband—a delegate—are supporting the senator.

Hatch is a top target of the tea party this year and many of his critics had hoped to wage a successful ouster of him Saturday, much like they brought down Republican Sen. Robert Bennett in favor of tea paryiers in 2010. But Hatch sounded confident Thursday when asked about his odds.

"We are cautiously optimistic, you know?" Hatch told Yahoo News. "A year ago, I'm not sure people gave us much of a chance." But meeting with delegates across the state has helped shore up support, he said.

As Yahoo News reported Thursday, even Hatch's challenger Liljenquist isn't talking about a blowout. "This isn't in the bag," he told Yahoo News.

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