When Orrin Hatch ran for the United States Senate the first time, he campaigned against then Democratic Senator Frank Moss. Hatch traveled Utah asking and answering a simple question: “What do you call a Senator who’s served in office for 18 years?” “You call him home,” he said.That was thirty-six years ago. Orrin Hatch beat Frank Moss and has been in the United States Senate ever since. This week, voters in Utah will begin the process of deciding whether or not it is time to call Orrin Hatch home, having served twice as long as the Senator he decided to challenge successfully in 1976.I was one when Orrin Hatch beat Frank Moss. He is the longest serving Utah Senator. He is, for those of us who started paying attention to politics in the 1980’s, a seminal figure in late twentieth century American politics. From his seat in the Senate Judiciary Committee, Hatch’s face has been a visible presence in American homes for decades.Each time I have met Orrin Hatch, I’ve come away liking the man. But were I in Utah this week, I’d want to do as he wanted to do thirty-six years ago and call him home.
My problem with Orrin Hatch is not, as it is for some, the seemingly inexplicable relationship he had for so long with Senator Ted Kennedy. It’s amazing the number of people who hold that against him. But I give him credit for forging a friendship with a polar opposite who he routinely matched wits against.One issue I have with Orrin Hatch is that he has been in Washington for thirty-six years. Many of my friends and colleagues within my office and elsewhere are Hatch supporters. He has done a tremendous job over the years building strong relationships and bases of support within the conservative movement. Fighting for conservative judges will do that for you. For so many of those battles, Orrin Hatch was the guy we all relied on.But Orrin Hatch is not an indispensable person. No man is indispensable. I am not a term limits advocate, but thirty-six years wanting to make it forty-two years does seem a bit much.Frankly, my biggest issue with Orrin Hatch is, counter-intuitively, just how well he’s voted in this session of Congress. In Orrin Hatch’s thirty-six years in the United States Senate, it sticks out like a sore thumb. He, and most Republicans, have voted well on every big issue. Orrin Hatch has, for his Senate career, always fought the good fight on judges. In fact, much of Hatch’s support comes from his zealous advocacy on behalf of conservative judges.But as I have learned sitting in my editor’s chair these past few years, most Republicans are always right on the big votes. It is the fights behind the scenes, the small votes, and the votes between conservatives and Republicans that separate the wheat from the chaff. On many of those votes over the years, Orrin Hatch was no different from any of the other Senate Republican leaders. We’re now past $15 trillion in debt and Orrin Hatch voted for a good bit of spending contributing to that debt. Some of it was necessary, but much of it was not.He sees the light now. His colleague, Bob Bennett, got tossed out by the tea party and replaced with Mike Lee. Suddenly, Orrin Hatch is voting in near lock step with Mike Lee. He, the senior Utah Senator, seems to be the junior partner in Utah’s conservative shift.As we’ve seen time and time again, though, many a Senator gets right with the voters in the fifth and sixth year of any term headed into an election, but in years one through four, they march to a different beat — one they seem to only tune out when they run for election.I’m not worried about Orrin Hatch on the big votes. He’d vote with the conservatives more often than not. But I am worried about Orrin Hatch on the small votes that matter between the status quo and smaller government. I worry about Orrin Hatch in the years he is not worried about re-election. And if he were to win re-election, surpassing forty years in the Senate, I’d worry he might decide then to end and so we’d have six years of Orrin Hatch in the Senate caring little what conservatives or Utahans think.We moved Utah to the right in 2010. We should try to do it again. Orrin Hatch is a fine and decent man. He deserves a lot of praise for putting so many conservatives on the federal bench. But I think it is time, after thirty-six years, to call him home.