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SALT LAKE CITY — After working for a year to build delegate support ahead of the state Republican convention, Sen. Orrin Hatch's campaign has some welcome news that its strategy may be working.
Hatch's camp released polling numbers last week that show the senator comfortably leading his challengers, and news outlets reported over the weekend and Monday that FreedomWorks — the out-of-state conservative group that lobbied to defeat former Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, in 2010 before setting its sights on Hatch — is scaling back its Utah operations.
"I do think we are redirecting our resources a bit toward Texas and Indiana through the end of May," FreedomWorks' director of federal campaigns, Brendan Steinhauser, told POLITICO blogger David Catanese. "We will have a presence at the Utah convention, but we’ve decided to focus more on these other states."
Meanwhile, a representative for Hatch's campaign said the six-term incumbent is feeling confident with the state GOP convention just 10 days away.
The campaign's recently released poll numbers show a 57 percent unfavorable rating for FreedomWorks among Utah delegates. Hatch campaign spokesperson Evelyn Call suggested that rating is a response to negative and pushy campaigning by Freedomworks. She also said the Hatch campaign has worked hard to correct and counteract misinformation released by the conservative group in preparation for precinct caucus meetings and the upcoming state Republican convention.
"(FreedomWorks) misunderstood the amount of support Senator Hatch has in this state, and I think we saw that on caucus night." Evelyn Call, Hatch campaign spokesperson
"We knew we had to work longer and harder," she said.
Caucus meetings for both Republicans and Democrats attracted high attendance this year, with many Republican voters saying they were motivated to participate in response to Bennett's defeat at the party's 2010 nominating convention.
A 14-page mailer was also produced by the Hatch campaign listing the "top 10 lies" perpetuated by FreedomWorks.
"(FreedomWorks) misunderstood the amount of support Senator Hatch has in this state, and I think we saw that on caucus night," Call said.
FreedomWorks director Russ Walker told the Associated Press the group would continue working to unseat Hatch, but added that compared to Bennett in 2010 it is more difficult to emphasize the differences between Hatch and his challengers. At a recent debate in Draper, challengers Dan Liljenquist and Chris Herrod agreed with Hatch on nearly every question, leading Liljenquist to speculate that Hatch's seniority would be the key issue in the election.
Liljenquist has said in the past that FreedomWorks should not interfere with local campaigns, and on Tuesday his campaign chair, Holly Richardson, extended that sentiment to political action groups in general. She said she appreciates the efforts by FreedomWorks to elect a replacement for Hatch, but above all, Liljenquist would prefer to run his own campaign.
"Certainly our preference is that the playing field be leveled," she said. "I think they should all stay out or we need to have more transparency into who's donating."
She said that comparatively, FreedomWorks is more transparent than many Utah-based organizations.
"We're competing against millions and millions of dollars, most of which is from out of state," she said.
According to the polling numbers released by the Hatch campaign — which were conducted by Dan Jones & Associates — Hatch carries a 78 percent favorable rating among delegates chosen in March, compared with 60 percent and 26 percent for challengers Dan Liljenquist and Chris Herrod, respectively.
Of those delegates surveyed, 62 percent said they would vote for Hatch in a matchup between Hatch, Liljenquist and Herrod. A candidate needs at least 60 percent support at the state convention to avoid a primary contest in June.
Another poll, released Wednesday by conducted by NSON Opinion Strategy for Strong Utah PAC, shows Hatch leading his challengers but falling short of being primary-proof with 50.5 percent of delegate votes.