Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) showed up at tonight’s Tea Party Express town hall in downtown DC to take a few questions about the budget and push his tea party cred by sharing a stage with movement heavyweights like Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN), Rep. Allen West (R-FL) and Sen. Mike Lee, the tea party Republican who booted Sen. Bob Bennett (R-UT) last cycle.
Hatch rose to the occasion, offering up the kind of anti-tax, anti-big government, anti-Obamacare messaging that the tea party thrives on. It’s clear why Hatch was there — he wants to avoid the fate that befell Bennett, who ignored the tea party rumblings in his home state only to be run out of the Senate by Republicans back home.
What’s not clear is how Hatch, who presumably is just the type of incumbent Republican the tea party would like to take out in 2012, came to be introduced as a supporter of the movement before a nationwide tea party audience.
Hatch told TPM he was invited. Tea Party Express president Amy Kremer told TPM he invited himself. And Tea Party Express strategist Sal Russo (who incidentally used to work for Hatch) told TPM that anyone who says Hatch wasn’t extended an invitation from his group is mistaken.
Welcome to Invite Gate.
When it was announced that Hatch would be a part of tonight’s event, many assumed Russo was behind it. He recently did Hatch a solid by telling a reporter that Hatch was “an original tea partier,” the kind of support Hatch will need if he wants to hang on through the tea party-led state Republican convention that Bennett couldn’t.
But Tea Party Express Communications Director Levi Russell told reporters that it was Hatch who invited himself to the event. That was the storyline going in: a desperate Hatch, fearful of what the tea party could do to him, begged his way into to a town hall full of tea partiers to pretend he was one of them.
“That’s innacurate,” Hatch told TPM when asked about Russell’s comments before the town hall. Hatch told reporters that he attended the meeting — which was streamed live via the Internet to tea partiers across the country — because the tea party invited him.
Not so, said Kremer. In an interview, she first said Hatch “reached out to us” before saying she didn’t know how Hatch’s appearance came to be.
“We definitely invited him,” Russo said in an interview.
When asked about Russell’s comments, Russo said essentially that the right hand of the Tea Party Express didn’t know what the left hand was doing.
“We were just all traveling in different places and no one knew who did what,” he told TPM. “[The mixup] was our fault.”