Washington (CNN) - A conservative group that last year helped defeat GOP Sen. Bob Bennett of Utah in his bid for re-nomination appears to be signaling that fellow Utah Republican Orrin Hatch could be on their target list as he gears up for re-election next year.
"Senator Hatch has a lower lifetime average on the Club for Growth's Congressional Scorecard than his former colleague Bob Bennett for a reason. Orrin Hatch has done some good things over the decades, but six term incumbents who vote for TARP, the Bridge to Nowhere, the Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac bailout, SCHIP, and higher taxes are quite clearly not 'as good as it gets,'" says Club for Growth President Chris Chocola, in a statement Friday.
Club for Growth, a fiscally conservative organization that endorses and contributes to Republican candidates, along with some other conservative and Tea Party groups, targeted Bennett last year in the months leading up Utah's GOP convention, where the three-term senator lost his bid for his party's re-nomination. Conservatives Mike Lee and Tim Bridgewater advanced to the party primary, with Lee winning the GOP nod and then the general election.
Chocola's "good as it gets" comment is in response to a quote Thursday on the National Review's website from Sal Russo, the chief strategist for the Tea Party Express, a leading national tea party organization.
In comments to CNN, Russo said that "Hatch has been a good friend and a solid conservative. He's been a good solid conservative vote in the Senate since 1976."
Russo added that the the platform Hatch ran on in 1976, when he first won election to the Senate, is similar to the goals of the today's Tea Party movement. But Russo said that "we haven't made any judgments yet about any Senate races."
Tea Party Express also played an influential role in helping to defeat Bennett last year and as a big supporter of Lee both during the primary process and during the general election.
Tea Party Express Amy Kremer tells CNN that "while Senator Orrin Hatch is certainly a very kind and decent man who is well-liked by his peers, he has also been a politician who has at times gone with the will of the entrenched political establishment instead of the will of the voters of his state."
She adds that "there is great excitement and energy amongst Utah tea party activists about the prospects for a constitutional conservative candidate to step forward and offer an alternative to Senator Hatch in 2012. If and when that should happen, we here at the Tea Party Express will evaluate those candidates."
Club for Growth also says the jury's out on Hatch.
"We have made no decision about the upcoming Utah Senate race, but when we do, our decision will be about improving the Senate in 2013, not 1977," adds Chocola.
Hatch, a six term senator, has a history of reaching across the aisle to work with Democrats, which may not sit well with many Tea Party activists and other conservatives. But since the midterm election, Hatch has taken steps to buffer himself from criticism from those on the right by highlighting his conservative chops. Just this he week he led the Senate GOP push for a balanced budget amendment and was a co-sponsor of an Republican amendment to repeal the new health care law.
Hatch tells CNN that "serving the people of the great state of Utah each and every day is my highest priority. I won't ever take that privilege and honor for granted and will continue to work my hardest over the next two years to earn their support once again at the ballot box."
One person who may be considering mounting a primary challenge to Hatch is Rep. Jason Chaffetz, who was re-elected last November to a second term. Chaffetz office says the congressman is concentrating now on his legislative duties and won't make any decision for a number of months.
- Congressional Producer Ted Barrett contributed to this story
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