Sens. Richard Lugar (R-IN) and Orrin Hatch (R-UT) are similar in many ways — they are the two most senior Republicans in the Senate, both are well-liked by colleagues of both parties, and both have shown a willingness to work across the aisle, much to the chagrin of conservative purists. Because of their relative moderation, both are also sure to face tea party-driven primary challenges in 2012, yet their reactions to this threat could not be more different.
Hatch, acutely aware of the fate that befell former Utah GOP senator Bob Bennett (he lost his seat to a tea party challenger last year), has jumped head first into the tea party movement in recent weeks in an attempt to pass himself off as one of their own. He even appears to have invited himself to a Tea Party Express town hall last night in Washington featuring right-wing favorites like Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN). At the event, which ThinkProgress attended, Hatch took every opportunity possible to pander to the tea party:
– “I’ve been watching what the Tea Party does. I’m very impressed,” Hatch said.
– “I’m often accused of having been a tea partier before there even was such as term, and I’m okay with that.”
– “It’s time for America to take back America and the Tea Party will play a role in that.”
Lugar, on the other hand, has stood firm by his record and values, defending the need for bipartisanship and making it clear that he won’t be pushed around by the tea party or “kowtow” to their special interests:
– Lugar refuses to “kowtow” to the tea party: “A lot of conservatives believe you have to kowtow to the Tea Party. We reject that premise,” Lugar spokesperson Mark Helmke told the New York Times last week.
– Lugar told the tea party to “get real”: “I’ve got to say ‘Get real’ [when] I hear Tea Party or other people talking about they were against START,” Lugar told a local TV station.
– Lugar said the tea party has few real ideas: “In essence, they are unhappy about life in America and they want to express themselves,” Lugar said. But while they say “we want this or that stopped,” their demands are empty “cliché,” and “they are not able to articulate all the specifics,” Lugar told US News.
At the tea party event last night, ThinkProgress asked Hatch about Lugar’s remark that the tea party needs to “get real.” Hatch, at first skeptical that Lugar would dare say such a thing, replied, “I would never say that. I think they are real.” Watch it:
Hatch’s newfound love of the tea party is especially interesting considering that just one year ago, Hatch sound a lot like Lugar does now. In February of 2010, Hatch blamed the tea party for the loss of Republican lawmaker, saying, “If we fractionalize the Republican Party, we are going to see more liberals elected.” And asked to explain Bennett’s loss in May, Hatch suggested that tea party activists “don’t have an open mind and they won’t listen.”