(SALT LAKE CITY) — Mitt Romney is campaigning for Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, in the senator’s home state Friday, although the six-term Senate incumbent may not need Romney’s help.
After holding campaign events in Iowa on Friday, Romney travels to Salt Lake City for a photo-op with the long-time senator, who ties with the recently ousted Dick Lugar of Indiana as the longest-serving Republican in the Senate.
Like Lugar and former Utah Republican Sen. Bob Bennett, Hatch faces a Tea Party challenger who’s backed by the D.C. group FreedomWorks. Both Lugar and Bennett fell to such challengers, Bennett at the Utah state convention in May 2010 and Lugar in May of this year.
Romney was scheduled to meet Hatch at a private airport in Salt Lake City, where the former was already scheduled for high-dollar fundraisers Friday evening.
In early May, Hatch announced that he had been tapped to become a “special policy adviser” to the Romney campaign. Romney filmed a television ad for Hatch last March and also recorded a radio ad for him.
Romney campaigned for Bennett in 2010, without success for the senator. Romney introduced Bennett at the state convention, where Tea Party candidates Mike Lee (now the state’s junior Republican senator) and Tim Bridgewater knocked Bennett off the primary ballot after multiple rounds of convention voting.
“Today he faces an uphill battle at this convention. Some may disagree with a handful of his votes or simply want a new face, but with the sweep and arrogance of the liberal onslaught today in Washington, we need Bob Bennett’s skill and intellect and loyalty and power,” Romney said at the time. His praise for Bennett drew a mixture of cheers and boos.
At the time, Romney’s endorsement of Bennett entailed a hint of political risk. Tea Partiers had yet to warm up to Romney and questioned his conservative dedication through the early parts of the 2012 campaign despite his late outreach. Even so, Romney’s warm greeting at the 2010 convention suggested he is perhaps immune to such risks in Utah.
Hatch’s challenger is Dan Liljenquist, a state senator and, ironically for Romney, a former Bain consultant. Liljenquist worked for Bain’s consulting group, not its private-equity practice where Romney made his name, for two years after law school.
Hatch, however, is better positioned than Bennett or Lugar were. He failed to secure enough votes at the Utah state convention to prevent a June 26 primary, but polling shows him well ahead.
While Bennett (and perhaps less so, Lugar) seemed caught off-guard by their Tea Party challengers, Hatch set to work more aggressively in guarding his re-election chances. He also caught a break when Tea Party-aligned Rep. Jason Chaffetz declined to run against him. Such a challenge would have likely caused second thoughts by other conservatives such as the Club for Growth, which often joins with FreedomWorks to air TV ads on behalf of primary challengers but which is sometimes more selective than other conservative groups in choosing whom to support. The Club sat out Utah’s 2012 GOP Senate primary.
In 2012, even Sarah Palin endorsed Hatch. While it’s always a story when a prominent Republican sides against Tea Partiers in a hotly contested primary, the currently one-sided state of Utah’s primary makes Romney’s appearance for Hatch a relatively noncontroversial one.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Dan Merica and Sophie Tatum, CNN
Stephen Collinson and MJ Lee, CNN
Tal Kopan and Evan Perez, CNN
Stephen Collinson, CNN