SALT LAKE CITY — Sen. Orrin Hatch declined Tuesday to endorse the re-election of fellow Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee but said Lee has plenty of time to improve his image after losing a high-stakes fight over the Affordable Care Act.
"I'm not going to get into endorsements at this point in any way," Hatch said during a Deseret News and KSL interview focused on the political impact of the battle that led to a federal government shutdown and a near default.
It's time now, Hatch said, for Lee and other tea party Republicans to be "rehabilitated" for refusing to pass a budget bill needed to keep the government operating unless money for the act better known as Obamacare was removed.
"I think Sen. Lee has plenty of time to reach out to fellow Utahns and to show he's worthy of being re-elected," Hatch said. "The best thing to do is do the job, really work hard, (and) stay away from extremes unless you're absolutely sure you're right."
In this case, Hatch said, Republicans are all opposed to Obamacare, but many saw the strategy employed by Lee and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, as a losing cause. Hatch said there was never a way for Lee to succeed in stopping the health care law.
"The tactics were not the right tactics. It takes experience sometimes to make sure you can use the right tactics," Hatch said, calling the failed fight "a matter of great concern to me" as a leader of the Senate GOP re-election committee.
Hatch said he wants to make sure Republicans hang onto their existing seats, as well as make gains in the GOP-controlled House and especially the Democratic-controlled Senate in the 2014 elections.
That also includes Lee's seat, up two years later, which Lee won in 2010 after longtime GOP Sen. Bob Bennett was defeated at the Republican Party State Convention at the hands of tea party activists.
While there is already talk of Lee facing a challenge in 2016 from within the GOP, some Republicans are concerned that the state's only Democrat in Congress, Rep. Jim Matheson, might get in the race.
"I do want to make sure we keep that seat because, naturally, I want every Republican seat we can get," Hatch said. "And I'm working my guts out to make sure we do."
Still, the state's senior senator called Lee "a fine young man" and a good person whom he personally likes.
"I don't find a lot of fault with anybody who has the guts to stand on the Senate floor and take on the whole Senate," Hatch said.
A spokeswoman for Lee, Emily Bennion, had little to say about Hatch's comments.
"Sen. Lee isn't running for re-election yet, and so it's too early to talk about that," she said in a statement.
Lee, who raised $250,000 since launching his effort in midsummer, sent out a fundraising email Tuesday signed by his campaign manager urging supporters to show their gratitude to Lee for "standing up and speaking out."
A new Time magazine post called Lee the real leader behind the anti-Obamacare movement and "also one of the biggest hammers driving the wedge" in the GOP "whose national stature may soon rise to match his influence."
Recent polls in Utah, however, found opposition to Lee's actions.
A Deseret News/KSL poll by Dan Jones & Associates earlier this month showed 56 percent of Utahns believed it wasn't worth shutting down the government as part of the effort to repeal the new health care law. Lee's approval rating was at 43 percent.
Former state senator Dan Liljenquist, a Republican who in 2012 forced Hatch into his first primary election in 36 years, said he wasn't surprised Hatch wasn't endorsing Lee — because that's what Lee did to Hatch in 2010.
Hatch said the national tea party group FreedomWorks, which had backed Lee in 2010, "did everything they could to try and dump me. They found out I'm not a dumpable guy" after Hatch poured millions of dollars into the race.
Liljenquist, who recently wrote a Deseret News op-ed warning that Lee may have permanently hurt his effectiveness in the Senate, said he has no plans to run against Lee in 2016.
"I support Sen. Lee, but the tone in Washington needs to change and Republicans need to work together," Liljenquist said. He said he wrote the op-ed because what happened "could be harmful to the state if not repaired."
Kirk Jowers, head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics, said he doubted Hatch would endorse anyone at this point in the election cycle.
"So I don't think it's that significant," Jowers said of Hatch declining to endorse Lee on Tuesday. "I think the moment in time makes it feel significant, but it's three years out. A lot can happen."
Quin Monson, head of BYU's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, said it probably doesn't matter that Hatch isn't endorsing Lee at this point since they have very different supporters.
"It confirms a lot of things people believe one way or the other," Monson said.
Pollster Dan Jones said Hatch may be waiting for the results of the 2014 elections before deciding who gets his support in 2016. Those elections will be a test for tea party candidates, he said.
"It is too early to determine right now whether Mr. Lee will be the Republican nominee for the Republican Party in Utah in 2016," Jones said.
Hatch, the pollster said, is "not running again. He wants his legacy."