Utah’s Tea Party Senator Not Ready To Endorse Orrin Hatch

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) spent more than a few minutes on stage together last night at a Tea Party Express town hall in Washington. But for some strange reason, Hatch’s impending reelection fight — which will pit him against frustrated home-state tea partiers and could cost him his party’s nomination — didn’t come up. It’s especially odd because Lee is intimately familiar with how important it is for an incumbent Utah Republican senator to reach out to the tea party these days. He got his current job largely because the man who held it before him, Sen. Bob Bennett (R), was on the wrong side of angry tea party conventioneers.

After the town hall, I caught up with Lee and found out why Hatch’s 2012 prospects weren’t a topic of discussion on stage: Lee is not interested in discussing them. Not only was he unwilling to call Hatch a tea party Republican, but he was also not interested in talking about endorsing the fellow Republican he represents Utah with.

“He is–uh–well, he was here tonight,” Lee told TPM when asked if Hatch is a tea partier. “I look forward to welcoming him into the tea party caucus.”So you endorse him for reelection then? I asked.

“I look forward to him joining,” Lee said.

Hatch’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Hatch wasn’t at the official rollout of the Senate Tea Party Caucus, which was created by Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) and currently consists of Paul, Lee, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) and Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS).

Paul’s office did not immediately respond to a question about Hatch’s status with the caucus either.

Several tea party-backed senators — like Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Ron Johnson (R-WI) — declined to join the caucus. And other than DeMint, no veteran senators have joined so far.

Lee seems to think Hatch is about to sign on, and he suggests that Hatch joining would go a long way toward convincing Utah tea partiers he’s one of them.