- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 19, 2012

As Utah Republicans prepare to nominate a Senate candidate this weekend, it appears that Sen. Orrin Hatch may have bucked the anti-incumbent trend.

The latest poll released Wednesday showed Mr. Hatch leading a three-man field with a whopping 62 percent among likely Republican voters. The survey conducted by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research found his closest challenger, former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist, capturing 20 percent of the vote, while state Rep. Chris Herrod trailed with 6 percent.

Of course, it won’t be “likely voters” making the decision at this weekend’s state convention. Under Utah’s unique rules, the 4,000 Republican delegates will select the party’s nominee for Senate. If no candidate receives 60 percent of the conventiongoers’ vote, the top two finishers will face off in a primary election.

Two separate polls of delegates released this month by the Hatch campaign found that the six-term incumbent may have enough convention support to clear the 60-percent hurdle. The surveys showed Mr. Hatch’s support remaining consistent at 62 and 61 percent.

“The polls are showing we’re in a good position and that the delegates are in support of Orrin Hatch, by and large,” Hatch spokeswoman Heather Barney said. “But we don’t take anything for granted. He’s doing a telephone town hall tonight, and meeting with delegates up until the last minute.”

A Utah Foundation poll conducted by Dan Jones & Associates of Salt Lake City also showed that 61 percent of Republican delegates viewed Mr. Hatch as their first choice. Still, analysts said that the mood of the convention can swing dramatically based on candidate speeches and other factors.

“The margin of error in the delegate survey makes this convention race too close to call, and it very well could go to a June primary election between Hatch and Liljenquist,” said the Utah Foundation Research Report.

Liljenquist spokeswoman Holly Richardson said the campaign is confident that the one-day Saturday convention will produce a runoff between Mr. Hatch and her boss.

The surveys showing Mr. Hatch in the lead “are internal polls paid for by Hatch’s campaign. We’ve been on the ground working and we feel confident that ‘reports of our demise are greatly exaggerated,’ ” Ms. Richardson said in a text message. “We feel very comfortable saying that we will be going to a primary.”

A primary is hardly the worst thing that could happen to the incumbent. After six terms in the Senate, Mr. Hatch is a household name in Utah, while Mr. Liljenquist would have to compete to win votes from a much larger and less informed voter pool than the one at the convention.

Mr. Hatch is also likely to enjoy a sizeable fundraising advantage in a primary campaign. It could have been more sizeable, but the Hatch campaign made the decision to kick into full campaign mode from the start, instead of viewing the convention as a gimme.

That decision stemmed largely from the result of the 2010 race, in which Republican Sen. Robert F. Bennett placed third at the convention to two relative unknowns. Mr. Bennett was viewed as too moderate by his conservative opponents and was targeted for defeat by FreedomWorks, a Tea Party group led by former U.S. House Majority Leader Dick Armey.

FreedomWorks also zeroed in on Mr. Hatch, but without the same success. While conservatives have criticized Mr. Hatch for his forays to the center, notably his working relationship with the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, the Hatch campaign was able to counter with a media juggernaut that his foes couldn’t match.

Russ Walker, national political director for FreedomWorks, said the Hatch campaign and pro-Hatch political groups have spent $6 million leading up to the convention.

“He launched his campaign the day Bob Bennett lost,” Mr. Walker said. “He’s been doing TV ads non-stop since January. We haven’t hit $700,000, and we’re the biggest spenders against him.”

The group is waiting for the outcome of the convention before deciding how to approach a possible two-candidate primary.

“We’ll do our own poll after the convention, and if we think he’s beatable, we’ll stay in the race,” Mr. Walker said. “If we don’t think he’s beatable, we’ll back out of the race.”

One wild card that probably helped Mr. Hatch this year was the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The church encouraged its members to attend the March party caucuses, which resulted in roughly double the turnout at the Republican caucus.

The result was a delegate group that was somewhat less conservative and less politically active than the pool that emerged from the 2010 caucus, which was dominated by Tea Party activists.

“You had a lot of people from the caucuses who really only knew Orrin Hatch,” Mr. Walker said. “They’re basically conservative, but they really didn’t know a lot of the issues surrounding this election.”