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Could Hatch go out as he came in?
Many say it's unlikely: With seniority on his side, the senator isn't fazed by Ashdown's bid
By Matt Canham
The Salt Lake Tribune

Sen. Orin Hatch.
A successful man with political ambitions challenges a powerful U.S. senator. Arguing the senator has squandered his seniority and ignored the voters, the upstart captures a surprising victory.
   This is the story line of Orrin Hatch's 1976 defeat of Democrat Frank Moss. And while Hatch was launching his political career, Pete Ashdown was starting the fourth grade.
   Now 30 years later, Ashdown, the owner of a successful Internet service provider, argues that Hatch is out of touch, that Hatch overstates the importance of his seniority.
   Ashdown wants to see a repeat of the 30-year-old election, but with him as the victor and Hatch as the political has-been.
   But what made Hatch's first race so memorable is that incumbents rarely lose - especially well-funded ones who hold powerful Senate positions and have largely avoided scandal.
   And few expect Hatch to fall this year.
   "Obviously it will be another Hatch landslide," said University of Virginia professor Larry Sabato, the director of the Center for Politics. "He is about as safe as they get."
   Part of that general feeling of Hatch invulnerability stems from the Republican dominance in Utah and part from the senator's seniority.
   He's the eighth-most-senior senator and has won five previous elections. He's a regular on Sunday morning talk shows and previously chaired the Judiciary Committee. He has three decades' worth of institutional knowledge and spent three decades forging relationships with power brokers. And if Republicans stay in control of the Senate, Hatch will take control of the powerful Senate Finance Committee in just two years.
   And he won't let you forget it.
   "Utah is a small population state, but with tremendous power," said Hatch. "I would say if anyone looks at it fairly they would say, 'Hatch has a tremendous amount of experience and effectiveness. He has got a lot done. People do pay attention to what he says.' "
   Ashdown contends that Hatch uses that seniority more to help his favorite lobbyists than Utahns.
   "Hatch writes legislation geared more toward industries outside of Utah than inside of Utah," Ashdown said. He criticizes Hatch's support of the movie and music industries against piracy, which he believes has resulted in regulation that hurts Utah's high-tech industry.
   "That's what people say when they don't have anything to say," Hatch counters. "I've been in so many battles over the years - won a lot of them - I've just about irritated everybody from time to time."
   And Hatch says he has significant support from the high-tech sector - "I have spent a lifetime helping that area."
   "I have a lot of respect for what Pete Ashdown has been able to accomplish - building up his little ISP - that is not an inconsequential thing," Hatch said. "I've never been in Pete Ashdown's shoes because I was a successful lawyer. He is in the high-tech world, I was in the people world. I dealt with thousands and thousands of people and with their basic human problems."
   The story line goes on. Ashdown challenging Hatch's effectiveness. Hatch touting his experience. The classic election time duel over the importance of seniority.
   Sabato said seniority is more important for smaller states such as Utah than for places such as California. Larger states have more House members and can wield influence by voting in a bloc. But smaller states must rely on their senators.
   "It is seniority that saves them, that makes sure their concerns are heard nationally," Sabato said.
   Former Utah Rep. Karen Shepherd agrees that lawmaking is easier when someone already has established relationships, but she says seniority is overrated.
   "I don't think it is very important any more," she said. In the House, leaders have ignored seniority when filling some committee chairmanships and in the Senate, those powerful posts only stay in the same hands for six years.
   Shepherd, a Democrat who supports Ashdown, didn't want to specifically discuss Hatch. But Shepherd did say the 30-year veterans she served with back in the early 1990s had lost some effectiveness.
   "The members who I knew who had been there that long did things exactly the same way every single time," she said. "It was actually getting easier to organize around them. So it is the classic case of knowing how to do things and get things done versus having a fresh view."
   Republican state Rep. Steve Urquhart thought he could be that fresh view. He challenged Hatch early this year, believing the incumbent had lost a step. Urquhart didn't last long, bowing out well before the state convention.
   "He still does have a lot of energy and drive," Urquhart said. "That was the miscalculation that I made and a lot of other people made, too."
   Former Utah Sen. Jake Garn spent 18 years in the Senate and would have stayed longer except he wanted to spend more time with his children.
   Still, Garn isn't a fan of the seniority system generally. He would rather see term limits.
   "I think the Founding Fathers didn't intend that people would stay forever," he said.
   Ashdown calls the seniority system "anti-democratic."
   "It is the only thing some candidates are touting as the reason they should be re-elected," he said. Ashdown would like to see committee placements handled on a lottery system.
   Even though Garn and Ashdown may find common ground on seniority, don't interpret that to mean Garn backs anyone but Hatch.
   Garn wants shorter terms. But he also wants that standard applied to everyone and until it does, Garn believes Utah should exploit the current system.
   "Seniority is extremely valuable and important," Garn said.
   A nonpartisan group called Capitol Advantage ranked Hatch as the ninth-most-influential senator largely based on his seniority. And that ranking could easily rise.
   Hatch would become the chairman of the Finance Committee in 2008 if Republicans remain in power. The committee oversees all tax issues along with Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare.
   Hatch calls it: "The most powerful committee in the whole Congress."
   Sabato said Hatch may be overstating that a bit, but added the Finance Committee is one of the most influential.
   And with Utah's other senator, Bob Bennett, in line to become the Banking Committee chairman, Hatch contends that "Utah will have an inordinate influence on all of the financial matters of this country."

© Copyright 2006, The Salt Lake Tribune.
All material found on Utah Online is copyrighted The Salt Lake Tribune and associated news services. No material may be reproduced or reused without explicit permission from The Salt Lake Tribune.

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