Published June 27, 2012
Longtime Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, clinched renomination Tuesday for the seat he has held since 1977. The Utah Republican faced his most significant intra-party challenge since taking office.
Former Utah state Sen. Dan Liljenquist pushed Hatch into his first primary in the last 36 years after the incumbent failed to win enough delegates at the state’s GOP delegate convention in April.
The Utah Republican convention system requires that a candidate win at least 60 percent of the delegates in order to advance to the general election. In the event no candidate garners the required number of delegates, the top two contenders go on to a primary. Hatch fell short by less than one percent.
But recent polling in the days before the primary election indicated that Hatch held a sizable lead over Liljenquist. But the challenger was also at a major fundraising disadvantage against Hatch, whose campaign spent about $10 million on the primary race. In contrast, Liljenquist spent $614,000 - with $400,000 of it money he loaned to his campaign.
Hatch, is one of the most-senior Republicans in the Senate and a 1976 classmate with Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., Lugar lost a primary last month to Indiana state treasurer Richard Mourdock after being cast as too moderate and out of touch after nearly four decades in the Senate. It’s a situation Hatch also tried to avoid.
Liljenquist, 37, touted endorsements from former GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum and the tea party-affiliated group FreedomWorks. The organization spent nearly $900,000 on Liljenquist's behalf.
Hatch backers had also feared the April GOP convention could echo the fate of his former Utah Republican Senate cohort Bob Bennett in 2010.
Two years ago, Bennett finished in third place at the Utah Republican Convention in a harbinger of the tea party’s influence on the 2010 elections. Now-Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Tim Bridgewater faced off in a primary for which Bennett, the 17-year incumbent, did not even qualify.
At the time, Bennett’s loss sent shockwaves throughout the political world. A significant primary challenge to a senator with strong statewide approval ratings and who was considered one of the most conservative members of Congress had once seemed unlikely.
Many of the same activists who targeted Bennett also set their sights on unseating Hatch. They cast him as an out-of-touch conservative who had become entrenched in the ways of Washington. Hatch launched an intense delegate lobbying effort for delegates in the months ahead of the convention emphasizing how his seniority proved an advantage in the Senate, such as a higher rank on committees.
Hatch currently serves as the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee. He previously chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee from 1995 to 2001 and 2003 to 2005 while the GOP claimed a majority in the upper chamber.