Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah will face a contested Republican primary for the first time in 36 years, but that's not necessarily bad news for the six-term senator.
Mr. Hatch emerged Saturday from the Utah Republican Convention with 59.2 percent of the delegate vote, far surpassing former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist, who took 40.8 percent in the second round of balloting after several other anti-Hatch candidates dropped out.
The two men will face off in a June 26 primary election.
If Mr. Hatch managed to capture 32 more votes, he would have reached the 60 percent threshold needed to clinch the nomination. Still, the 78-year-old senator likes his chances in a primary, where his fundraising edge and universal name recognition should prove to be huge advantages in a race decided by all Republican voters and not just a few thousand convention delegates.
"I consider it a tremendous victory after what has happened in the past and what we've had to do," Mr. Hatch said after Saturday's convention vote at the South Towne Expo Center in Sandy.
Mr. Hatch's "what has happened in the past" refers to another incumbent Utah Republican, Sen. Robert F. Bennett, losing his re-election bid after placing third at the 2010 convention. Mr. Bennett faced a slew of younger candidates who ran to his right and an anti-Bennett campaign organized by the Washington-based tea party group FreedomWorks.
The same group spent $700,000 to oust Mr. Hatch, but the Hatch campaign was ready. Mr. Hatch reached out to Utah's tea party groups, played up his conservative credentials and aggressively fought efforts to cast him as a moderate Republican. His campaign spent an estimated $6 million leading up to the convention, depicting his seniority as a plus and not a sign that he is ready to be put out to pasture.
Mr. Liljenquist dismissed his opponent's longevity, saying it meant nothing "unless you're actually able to change the course of the country." He repeatedly emphasized the need for fresh perspectives and faces in Washington and ran under the campaign slogan "It's time."
"The people in this state are looking for leadership, and they haven't seen it, and it's time for new leaders," he said after the vote.
That message worked in the Bennett race. But Mr. Hatch was able to emerge as the top vote-getter at the convention after having basically the same campaign run against him, leading analysts to speculate that the tea party may be losing strength.
Not so, say tea partyers. That Mr. Hatch would have to wage the fight of his life before the convention indicates that the movement remains every bit as influential as it was in 2010, said Russ Walker, FreedomWorks national political director.
"The tea party hasn't gone away — it's won," said Mr. Walker. "If every politician is talking like a conservative, then the tea party has won. What we have to do then is to make sure we hold their feet to the fire when they get back in office."
Supporters of state Rep. Chris Herrod and several other candidates threw their support behind Mr. Liljenquist after they were eliminated on the first ballot. The boost put Mr. Liljenquist, who earlier took 28 percent of the delegate vote, onto the primary ballot.
Mr. Hatch has faced no serious primary challenge since he was first elected in 1976, but his energetic campaign showed that he hadn't forgotten how to pound the pavement and press the flesh.
"We're pretty darned happy about what did happen," Mr. Hatch told the Salt Lake Tribune. "It sent a message. It says that this tough old bird isn't someone you can just trample on."
The winner of the primary election faces former state Sen. Scott Howell, who defeated Pete Ashdown at the Utah Democratic Convention over the weekend. Mr. Howell highlighted his ability to work both sides of the aisle, noting that he was elected to the state Legislature in a predominantly Republican district.
In Utah, however, the Republican primary winner is considered all but a shoo-in for the general election, given the state's strong conservative tilt and enormous Republican voter registration edge.
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