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Posted at 11:51 AM ET, 02/ 8/2011

Hatch and Lugar blaze different paths as tea party stalks

By Aaron Blake

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Republican Sens. Richard Lugar and Orrin Hatch have a lot in common.

They were both elected to the Senate in 1976, both are in their 70s, and both are well-regarded by their colleagues.

And, heading into their 2012 re-election races, both Lugar and Hatch have become the object of derision among some conservatives.

As each man prepares to run for his seventh term in the Senate next year, though, they are taking vastly different approaches to beating back likely primary challenges from their ideological right.

While Hatch has tried to make inroads with the tea party in order to avert a difficult challenge, Lugar has effectively been thumbing his nose at the movement.

While Hatch recently got the Tea Party Express to say that it won't target him in 2012, Lugar learned this past weekend that he will get a challenge from state Treasurer Richard Mourdock.

Looking back at what each man has done in recent months, it's not hard to see why the two mens' political fortunes appear to be heading in opposite directions -- at least, at the moment.

Lugar has repeatedly irritated the tea party in recent months. He was one of just five Republicans to support Elena Kagan's nomination for Supreme Court, he spearheaded a compromise on the new START nuclear arms treaty during the lame duck session, he opposed a ban on earmarks and he called for a renewal of the assault weapons ban after the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) last month.

But it hasn't been just his votes. Lugar's words have done little to quell the brewing opposition. During a breakfast with reporters last month, Lugar appeared to dismiss tea partiers as people who are angry because they or someone they loved has lost their job, and he said the movement lacked clear goals, relying instead on "large cliches".

And Monday, a local TV news station posted a story in which Lugar urged the tea party to "get real" about START.

"I hear Tea Party or other people talking about they were against START. I said 'Well, now, hang on here,'" Lugar told WANE-TV. "If you want to get into START, let's talk about it, but realistically as Americans, not as some Republican renegade."

What's more, when Lugar has met with tea party officials, they have often come away more determined than ever to take him down.

"He basically told us how it was," Indiana tea party activist Monica Boyer told The Hill recently after one such meeting. "There was no discussion, and he didn't hear us. From that time on, it was game on."

Lugar senior advisor Mark Helmke said the senator is well aware of the path ahead and has been making some inroads.

"All of the tea party members who Lugar has met and corresponded with acknowledge he is nice, and he hopes he will convince most of them, along with all Hoosier voters, that he continues to be a wise conservative, effective and energetic," Helmke said.

Helmke said some tea party activists have come away happy after meetings with Lugar, but it's clear that many have not.

"Some are favorable," Helmke said. "Others seem to want to focus on START."

Lugar has built a $2.35 million war chest and is effectively daring someone to beat him under the belief that the same coalition that has re-elected him time and time again will do so again in 2012.

That approach contrasts strongly with Hatch's efforts over the last few months, as he seeks to avoid the fate of former Utah Sen. Bob Bennett, who finished a dismal third at the state party nomination convention in 2010.

Hatch has been actively engaging with tea party leaders, putting a premium on empathizing with them. The most recent example is Hatch's participation in a Tea Party Express telephone town hall today.

(Important note about Hatch and the Tea Party Express: the organization is run by a former campaign consultant of Hatch's, Sal Russo.)

"It's not like it's them-versus-us," said a Hatch adviser about the tea party. "People that empathize with tea party positions are ultimately Utah Republicans. ... So the first thing we've done is not try to look at them as 'you people.'"

Hatch's voting record in recent months also leaves little for possible opponents -- most notably Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R) -- to criticize.

While Lugar voted for Kagan, Hatch said last week that she should recuse herself from any challenge to the health care bill. While Lugar opposed the earmark ban, Hatch was pulling all of his earmark requests from an omnibus spending bill. While Lugar was working with Democrats on START, Hatch pulled his support of another lame-duck priority, the DREAM Act. (Hatch used to be a co-sponsor of the bill, which provides a path to citizenship for undocumented young people born in the United States.)

Hatch, though, might still have a more difficult time than Lugar ever will -- even if Hatch is successful in reaching out to the tea party -- just by virtue of Utah's odd nominating process. A candidate must win at least 40 percent at the state party nominating convention in order to force a primary.

Even if Lugar has done himself no favors with the conservative base of late, he faces a much easier nominating process -- a primary in which his large financial advantage and longstanding connections in the party will be large assets.

Hatch, meanwhile, is dealing with a much smaller electorate -- roughly 3,000 Utah activists -- that amount to the most conservative of conservatives.

Each man has a unique challenge if they want to return to the Senate in 2012. The approaches Lugar and Hatch have adopted so far could not be more different. We won't knew who took the right path until next year.

By Aaron Blake  | February 8, 2011; 11:51 AM ET
Categories:  Republican Party, Senate  
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