Washington (CNN) - Even as Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah continues to tout his conservative credentials, a series of meetings are being held in his home state by Tea Party and other conservative activists to begin the process of finding a consensus candidate to primary challenge the six term senator when he's up for re-election next year.
Two top officials from FreedomWorks, a leading grassroots organization, are in Utah Thursday to meet with various tea party groups and possible candidates. Russell Walker, FreedomWork's vice president for political and grassroots campaigns, says the meetings are to analyze the race and to figure out "whether we have a real challenger to Hatch, and if we do have that challenger, what the next step in the process will be."
FreedomWorks is a nonprofit conservative organization based in the nation's capital that helps train volunteer activists and has provided much of the organization behind the Tea Party movement.
The organization also supports conservative candidates and last year it was one of the groups that targeted three-term Republican Sen. Bob Bennett in the months leading up Utah's GOP convention. Bennett was defeated at the convention in 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.
Hatch, who wants to avoid Bennett's fate, has a history of reaching across the aisle to work with Democrats, which obviously does not sit well with many tea party activists and other conservatives. But Hatch has taken steps since last year to buffer himself from criticism from those on the right by highlighting his conservative chops. He recently 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.
Last week he landed a perfect score in the American Conservative Union's 2010 ratings. Thursday, on the two year anniversary of the enactment of the federal stimulus program, Hatch put out a statement slamming the program and saying that "it's time to dramatically slash spending and start a dialogue about how to fix our broken, unsustainable entitlements whose future was made worse by the $2.6 trillion health spending bill."
Hatch's appearance last Friday at the Conservative Political Action Conference, an annual gathering of conservative activists from across the country that is put on by the ACU, drew cheers but also some jeers for his vote in 2008 for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), better know as the Wall Street bailout.
Hatch could face a conservative challenge next year from Rep. Jason Chaffetz, who was re-elected last November to a second term. The 43-year-old congressman told the Deseret News recently that a run for the Senate is "a definite maybe," and said he intends to make his decision before the autumn.
According to the poll commissioned by the Deseret News & KSL, Hatch leads Chaffetz in a hypothetical 2012 GOP primary senate election 44 to 34 percent among all Utah residents. The survey indicates Hatch leading Chaffetz 51 to 35 percent among those describing themselves as Republicans, with Chaffetz on top by the same 51-35 percent margin among self-identified 'very conservative' voters. Those are the kind of voters who may dominate the state party's convention, which determines which candidates advance to the GOP primary.
Reynolds says "there's a stark contrast between the records of Chaffetz and Hatch."
As for a possible primary challenge, Hatch recently told 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."
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