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.

Hatch also echoed Liljenquist's assessment that conditions surrounding this year's convention are much different than 2010, when Obamacare had passed just two days before delegates were selected.

"There were about 27 percent of them last time who weren't even Republicans and were from really fringe right wing groups," Hatch said of the 2010 voting Republican delegates. "There are still a number of those who will be at our convention Saturday."

Both the right and the tea party have criticized Hatch for being too moderate. Hatch voted for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) bailout, cosponsored the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), and has failed to keep federal spending and the deficit in check, his opponents say.

But Hatch argues that all conservatives cannot be blamed for fiscal issues in Congress. "Oh give me a break," he told delegates Thursday when asked to respond to his opponents' criticism of increased spending and the deficit while he has been in office. Hatch asked if Utah's junior senator Mike Lee should be responsible for the national debt, having served in office less than two years? "No, he's not and neither am I," Hatch said.

On Thursday, Hatch touted his conservative credentials, including a 90 percent score from the American Conservative Union for 36 years and his fight against unions. He also noted the influence he's wielded on the nation's court system from his post on the Judiciary Committee as well as the fights he's waged over entitlement programs.

And even though Hatch is busy fighting back against criticism from the right, he is not shy about touting his ability to reach across the aisle, a skill he says he's developed over his many years of service.

"It takes time to develop the relationships, to understand the rules, to build up a reputation that people will listen to," Hatch said. "Experience counts, let me tell you—especially if you are respected."

Polls show Hatch, who remains very well known in the state, strongly positioned against his lesser-known challengers ahead of Saturday's vote. If Hatch doesn't garner at least 60 percent Saturday, he will be pushed into a runoff with his top challenger in a June 26 primary election.

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