Escape Hatch?

Could the Utah senator's quixotic run for president cost him his Senate seat?

Published November 4, 1999 11:45AM (EST)

Largely overlooked in the mysterious and belated decision by Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch to run for president is the fact that his quixotic presidential campaign might end up posing a threat to his Senate seat, which comes up for re-election in 2000 as well. That electoral reality, combined with the fact that Hatch's campaign is going nowhere at the speed of sound, has inspired some pretty simple but harsh advice from certain friends in Salt Lake City: Get out.

"His presidential campaign has been an embarrassment," says a longtime Hatch insider who asked not to be named so he could dole out some tough love to the Judiciary Committee chairman. "He said when he first got into it that if he got in and wasn't a contender he'd get out. Well, it's painfully clear to everyone that he's not in the race. So he needs to get out and run for the Senate. He needs to do what he promised he would do if he wasn't a contender: get out of the presidential race and tend to business at home."

"A lot of his constituents here and some of his supporters wonder what he's doing," says Shia Kapos, the government editor of the Salt Lake Tribune. "He's low in the polls, he has no money -- they say, 'Why is he staying in the race?'"

"I don't know the reason," Hatch's sister, Marilyn "Nubs" Kuch, told the paper. "Maybe he just thinks things will work out somehow."

That Hatch's presidential aspirations seem hopeless isn't the real problem. The problem is that the way Hatch's campaign is being run -- not by Hatch's usual, Utah-based supporters -- is now actually making him some enemies back home.

Kapos says that Hatch has upset some big-wig Utah Republicans who wish they could hitch themselves to the stars of Texas Gov. George W. Bush or Arizona Sen. John McCain, but are refraining out of a politeness that is reaching its limits. They suffered through months of Hatch's Hamlet-ish decision making before he finally threw his hat into the ring at the beginning of July. Now they're forced into wallflower status while Bush and McCain's dance cards are filled by their counterparts from other states.

Indeed, Hatch's presence has created some weird moments for his fellow Utah Republicans. Not wanting to completely squander his bets on the sickliest of long-shot racehorses, the junior senator from Utah, Republican Sen. Bob Bennett, went to the ridiculous length of endorsing both Hatch and Elizabeth Dole. Now he's stuck in the desert with just Hatch, of course, though Bennett's made it pretty clear that he longs to be at the Bush oasis.

Last week, after the GOP town meeting at Dartmouth College, Hatch acknowledged that his July 1 declaration of candidacy wasn't just "a day late and a dollar short," but "two days late and $36 million short," a reference to the fat bankroll of Republican front-runner Bush. (Bush's bankroll is now almost twice that, of course.)

Hatch seized on that number when he threw his hat into the ring, saying he'd make up the difference by collecting 1 million contributions of $36 apiece. While Bush was going after "fat cats," Hatch said, he'd pursue "skinny cats."

But last week, when I asked him how that was going, Hatch said his campaign had raised "over $500,000 right now, including $60,000 from people who had logged on to his Web site." Assuming each of those donations was in $36 increments, that's still only 13,889 contributions -- 986,111 skinny cats short.

According to Federal Election Commission filings from the end of September, Hatch's campaign had about $250,000 cash on hand -- $1.9 million less than Arizona Sen. John McCain, and $37 million less than Bush. The $250,000 sum is all the more startling when you realize that the powerful senator had been able to raise a full $1.3 million. Where on earth did that million go?

"It was spent on a variety of things," says Hatch communications director Jeff Flint, before easing into a rather unimpressive list that includes the Iowa straw poll (in which Hatch came in dead last), start-up expenses, direct mail fund-raising, and $40,000 for a TV ad that ran only in Utah.

But it's not just Hatch's money game that's so uninspired. During the Dartmouth College town meeting, Hatch indicated that he hadn't learned lesson one from President Ronald Reagan about communication. He talks to voters as if they're a bipartisan group of senators hanging out before a subcommittee markup.

Asked about the right to bear arms, Hatch talked about the Clinton administration's "litigation policy" against firearms manufacturers. Quizzed about health care, Hatch pointed out his 23-years-long membership in the Senate and the fact that he'd "spent most of my career trying to solve health-care problems." Asked what his best domestic policy ever was, he started talking about the great jobs done by Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan and former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin. Hardly the answers that resonate with New Hampshire Republicans.

Hatch is respected within the Beltway for being willing to compromise, even forging alliances with lefties like Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., so as to ensure at least minimal progress. But does he really not understand how much he comes across as the poster boy for "part of the problem"? After the town meeting, one Forbes aide was heard snickering about poor Orrin, about how Hatch was bragging to Granite State Republicans about all the bills prefaced with "Hatch-Kennedy."

"He's running as the only conservative with elected experience," Flint says. "Sen. Hatch is a common-sense conservative."

Hatch's friends and supporters back in Utah say they know who's to blame for this mess. They repeatedly gripe that Hatch's current presidential campaign has been taken over by relative newcomers to the Utahan's senior circle. Normal Hatch muckety-mucks -- like Gov. Mike Leavitt, who managed Hatch's '82 Senate re-election campaign and was the chairman of his '88 campaign; Charlie Evans, who managed the '94 campaign, and Utah GOP strategist Bud Scruggs, who's worked on every Hatch campaign since 1982 -- are only nominally involved this time around, they say. Some Hatch intimates are involved, but too many people who care about Hatch have been pushed to the periphery, replaced by highly paid lobbyists and consultants.

"The only people with their sleeves rolled up for Orrin are people whose incomes are directly affected by his race," the Utah Hatch insider says. "Like the lobbyists back in D.C. who -- whether he's president, which he's not going to be, or chairman of Judiciary -- they make a lot of money."

One of the D.C. lobbyists cited is campaign manager Kevin McGuiness, a former Hatch chief of staff who now co-runs the lawyer-lobbying firm McGuiness & Holch. McGuiness has represented the Southern Wine & Spirits Association and archetypical D.C. lamely named groups like the "Project to Promote Competition and Innovation in the Digital Age" and the "Council for Responsible Nutrition." He lobbied on behalf of two hospitals -- Blodgett Memorial Medical Center in Grand Rapids, Mich., and Butterworth Health Systems -- that wanted to merge and needed congressional support to avoid any antitrust hassles.

McGuiness laughs at the suggestion that this job is a cash cow. "'Highly-paid'?" he scoffs. "This is done all-volunteer."

"I'm really proud Orrin's running," McGuiness adds. "I think we need
candidates like Orrin Hatch in this race. Orrin is the only candidate
who has a proven record, whose experience is greater than his
rhetoric, who is a proven conservative, who's demonstrated that he
knows how to get things done and solve problems."

McGuiness argues that it's not fair to assess Hatch's campaign just
yet. "Our problem is that we got in late and we're just getting
going," he says. "Our organizations in Iowa and New Hampshire are
just getting up, direct mail is just getting started, we've only been
in the campaign for a few months ... Let's take a look in a couple
months and talk then." The important factor, McGuiness says, is that
"we really want to give people some real choices and real
alternatives in this campaign."

The other "outsiders" running the Hatch campaign are Sal Russo of Russo Marsh, who's running the national operation, and communications director Flint, both of whom are located in Sacramento, Calif. -- 650 miles away from Salt Lake City.

When asked why the spokesman for a presidential candidate who shuttles between Utah and Washington, D.C. is headquartered in Sacramento, Flint says, "This is where our company is based."

"It's a cash cow for them," says one Washington pol. "The only reason the operation keeps going is because the paychecks keep coming in and they say, 'Yeah, Orrin, yeah, Orrin, you can do it, Orrin, just wait until Bush stumbles and you'll be the nominee, Orrin.'"

"I think it's catching fire in key states like Iowa and New Hampshire," says Hatch 2000 spokeswoman Margarita Tapia, reached in Sacramento. "Our support is growing."

"Growing"? According to a WNDS-TV/Franklin Pierce College poll of New Hampshire Republicans conducted between Oct. 31 and Nov. 3, Bush leads the Republican pack with 38 percent, McCain has 30 percent, Forbes 11 percent and Bauer 3 percent. Keyes and Hatch are tied at 2 percent. A University of Iowa Social Science Institute poll of likely Iowa Republican caucus voters conducted between Oct. 18-25 and released Wednesday had Bush with 52 percent, Forbes with 13 percent, McCain and Bauer tied at 6 percent and Keyes and Hatch tied with 2 percent.

But Flint says they're making progress. "When Senator Hatch got in the race, there were 12 candidates, and he was 11th or 12th. Now I've seen recent polls in which he's in 4th place. Of course, a lot of that is because so many candidates have dropped out. But I've seen Hatch in polls above Bauer. I think we're running a campaign that's going to peak at the right time."

Flint, of course, is paid to put on a happy face in a never-ending sky of gray clouds. On August 14, minutes after Hatch's abysmal performance in the Iowa Straw Poll was revealed, Flint issued a press release headlined "New Candidate Hatch Has Solid Iowa Showing."

"Today's results show that Hatch can rapidly move up into the top tier of candidates," the press release said.

At the Iowa straw poll, Bush scored 7,418 votes -- or 31.3 percent. Hatch got 558 votes, or 2.4 percent. That's only a handful of votes more than either of my cats got, and neither Pink nor Scout were even running.

This in-it-to-win-it attitude in the face of such hopeless odds is all the more frustrating for Utah Republicans, who are worried that Hatch's ill-fated presidential bid will allow a surprisingly strong Democrat -- Attorney General Jan Graham -- to snatch up his seat while he's out chasing windmills.

Graham, also a Mormon, has in past races been able to secure the votes of Republican women in Salt Lake City's suburbs. The state's former solicitor general, Graham won her first A.G.'s race in 1992 by only 1 percent. In her re-election in '96 she faced a Republican challenger who was endorsed by the state's immensely popular governor, Leavitt, who won that year with 75 percent of the vote. In Utah in 1996, President Clinton was a drag on the ticket, getting only 33 percent of the vote while Bob Dole weighed in with 54 percent. But Graham won decisively, 53 percent to her opponent's 46.

Graham is currently weighing a decision about what to do next year, when her term ends. "She's pretty popular," says Salt Lake Tribune editor Kapos.

"Utah law allows him to run for both," says Flint, refraining from volunteering that the law was changed just last year specifically so Hatch could pursue both options. "Post-Iowa and -New Hampshire, he will take a look and decide whether or not he'll continue running for the Senate, or if he'll keep on with his presidential campaign."

Even if Hatch wakes up and returns his attention to his Senate seat, some of his backers worry that the lameness of his presidential bid has damaged his credibility back home. "The talk is that they wonder if it could hurt the Senate race," says Kapos. "The concern is that he's spending all of his time running for president, and not spending much time in this re-election campaign for the Senate. So Democrats are thinking this is maybe the best time ever that they can successfully challenge him. They say he's never home, and that maybe he's even embarrassing himself by running for president."

"Orrin is not a Utahan by birth, and by now he's lived in D.C. twice as long as he ever lived here," the Utah supporter says. "And now he's off running for president. It lends credence to the idea that he doesn't really care about Utah. And that could make next year's race interesting. It's unlikely that he'll be defeated, but if Graham runs it won't be the cakewalk he's had in the past."

But officials at the Republican National Committee say that the sad songs coming from the land of Donny and Marie are so much noise. After all, it's been a generation since a Democrat held a Senate seat in Utah -- and that Democrat, former Sen. Frank Moss, was beaten by none other than Orrin Hatch.

When asked about the loss of Hatch's Senate seat, a Republican official in D.C. says, "We have not really looked at that situation at all. I mean, it really has not come up in our daily discussions. He doesn't have to make a decision until August, and we're not concerned. He'll drop out."

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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