ABC News’ Shushannah Walshe (@shushwalshe) reports:
Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah has done everything he can to escape the fate of Republicans who lost primaries to the Tea Party in 2010. Despite working on improving his relationship with Tea Party and fiscal conservative groups in the past year, the alarm has been sounded and Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, appears to be making steps toward an announcement sometime after Labor Day.
“If it was just about taking the path of least resistance, I would just stay in the House,” Chaffetz told ABC News. "But that’s not necessarily where I am headed. I don’t know. I haven’t made a final decision, but I’m trying to be as candid as I can, saying I moved from being a definite maybe to probably."
For an unannounced candidate, he has absolutely no hesitation taking on his potential intraparty rival. If or when Chaffetz gets in, it’s sure to be one of the most contentious primary fights in Congress.
“I don’t know that 42 contiguous years in the bubble in the U.S. Senate is healthy for anyone,” Chaffetz said. "I think people are ready for a change. And second to that is I just disagree with him on a lot of very important issues.
“Part of the reason we are in this debt crisis is because 26 times Sen. Hatch had an opportunity to vote no and he voted yes to raise the debt ceiling," he added. "Sixteen times a direct vote for yes, and 10 times allowed unanimous consent for an increase in the debt ceiling. That’s why, in part, we are in this mess.”
Hatch is a fixture in Washington. He is tied with Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana as the longest-serving, sitting U.S. senator and both are in the crosshairs of fiscal conservative groups such as the Club for Growth, which faults them for working across party lines.
It’s clear the debt-ceiling debate and spending issues will be on both candidates’ minds on the campaign trail. Hatch has taken the Cut, Cap and Balance pledge, saying he won’t vote for raising the debt ceiling without a balanced budget amendment enacted. Chaffetz is the principal author of the Cut, Cap and Balance legislation in the House, taking the same pledge. He also has said he won’t be voting for Republican House Speaker John Boehner’s debt plan.
Chaffetz intends to continue hitting Hatch on his past debt-ceiling votes — and his vote for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP — but Antonia Ferrier, Hatch’s press secretary for his Senate office, said the narrow focus leaves out the senator’s long history on fiscal issues in the Senate.
“Give me a break," Ferrier said. "Orrin Hatch has been the lead fighter for a balanced budget amendment for years. In fact, his constitutional amendment came one vote short of passing in 1997. If it had, we wouldn't be in this situation today. What has Mr. Chaffetz done other than go on TV and blast other people? He's not serious. He doesn't have a plan. Instead, all he has are pathetic attacks against one of the leading fiscal conservatives in the Senate.”
Official announcement or not, one thing is clear: The gloves are off. And political observers say it’s an uphill climb for the 77-year-old Hatch.
Tim Chambless, a professor of politics at Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah, said the battle has been going on behind the scenes for at least 15 months.
“Sen. Hatch says he is in the fight of his life," Chambless said. "He has been campaigning very hard. He has tried to encourage Chaffetz to stay in the House. … Chaffetz is very good at retail politics. I think he is more effective than Hatch in talking one-on-one to small groups in an enthusiastic way.”
Primary elections in Utah are done differently than in other states. In March 2012, 3,500 delegates will be selected at caucuses at schools, community centers and even in people’s homes. In April, those delegates will go to the state Republican convention, where there will be as many as three ballots. If one candidate gets 60 percent of the delegates’ votes on any of those ballots, that candidate becomes the nominee and there won't be a primary in June.
Te system in Utah worked against 18-year incumbent Bob Bennett, who was ousted last year by Mike Lee at the convention.
The system makes it difficult to use polls to gauge how a candidate is doing because the race might never even get to a traditional primary.
“The convention fight is first and foremost," Chambless said. "Here, I would say, Jason Chaffetz is ahead, Orrin Hatch is behind.”
Hatch has been actively campaigning and his team already is recruiting people to attend the caucuses in March to get Hatch delegates elected, said Dave Hansen, Hatch's campaign manager.
It’s clear that besides debt and spending issues, Chaffetz will try to paint Hatch as someone who’s time in Washington is up.
“Number one on my list was fighting the financial excess of D.C. spending, and I think I can point to issue after issue when Orrin Hatch has helped create those problems,” Chaffetz said. “It just comes time for a change, and new energy, and new direction and a new face to address our challenges. And I think America, Utah included, is frustrated with how Washington operates and wants to go in a new direction.”
Hatch ran on a similar platform in 1976 when he first ran for the Senate against an 18-year incumbent, Democratic Sen. Frank Moss, Chambless pointed out.
The Hatch team said the senator’s seniority helps Utah and, “with the problems this country is facing," it helps America, too, Hansen said. The campaign pointed out that if the GOP wins the Senate, Hatch will chair the Senate Finance Committee and, Ferrier said, would be able to bring “real change to the country” in that position.
Added Hansen of his candidate, “He says, ‘I feel good. My health is great. My desire is strong as ever. Why would I want to quit?’ Would the Bulls have liked to have Michael Jordan for another year? Absolutely. Would the Browns like to have Jim Brown for another season? Absolutely. Would BYU like to have Jimmer [Fredette] for another year? Absolutely.”
But Chaffetz countered, “Seniority only matters if you vote right. My argument is he hasn’t been voting right. It’s a myth perpetuated by incumbents.”
A Chaffetz campaign may also portray the real bad blood between the two Utahans. Chaffetz said he doesn’t have a relationship with Hatch.
“For a small state, you would think we would all be working together and be united," Chaffetz said, "but we are not and I don’t like it.”
The Hatch campaign appears not afraid to hit back.
“I will tell you this: If he gets in, it will be the toughest fight he could ever imagine," Hansen said. "There’s a reason Orrin Hatch has won six Senate races. … Nobody will outwork Orrin Hatch as a candidate, I can tell you that. And in the end, we are going to win.
“[Chaffetz] will just have to run his slash-and-burn campaign, but I do not believe the voters of Utah want to hear nor see that kind of campaign run in the state,” Hansen said. "The senator will not lower himself nor his campaign to the level that congressman Chaffetz seems to enjoy wallowing in.”
Hatch does have a serious money advantage, raising 10 times more than Chaffetz in the second quarter. The vast disparity doesn’t seem to bother Chaffetz.
“If I run, it will be a campaign about who can do more with less," he said. "I know he’s the big spender. Everybody gets that.”
Chaffetz also appears likely to receive money from outside groups if he gets in the race.
The Club for Growth put out a news release last month urging Chaffetz to run against Hatch and it put out a television commercial last month targeting Hatch.
FreedomWorks is on the ground in Utah actively trying to unseat Hatch. Although the group has not been as explicit as the Club for Growth, it told ABC News it would like to “take him [Hatch] out at the convention.”
The campaign is taking outside groups seriously, but is not worried, Hansen said.
“This is a race that will be won or lost by people in Utah," he said, "not by people out of state.”
For its part, the Hatch campaign has benefited from a commercial by an outside group called FreedomPath. It put an ad out this month praising Hatch and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah.
Lee hasn't weighed in on the probable battle between two members of his delegation.
Whoever becomes the Republican nominee may still have a general election battle. Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson’s staff told ABC News that he is looking at the possibility of running for Senate.
The battle between Chaffetz and Hatch could be so divisive it might be helpful to Matheson, Chambless said. Public Policy Polling, the Democratic polling firm, found Matheson even with Hatch at 45 percent to 44 percent, but ahead of Chaffetz, 47 percent to 42 percent, in a poll done earlier this month.