Orrin G. Hatch appeared to be coasting to victory in Utah's Republican Senate primary, and then Richard G. Lugar happened.
The loss by the six-term Mr. Lugar in the Indiana Republican primary May 8 to upstart state Treasurer Richard Mourdock casts an uneasy shadow over the Hatch re-election campaign. As with his Indiana cohort, Mr. Hatch is facing a younger and more conservative challenger in former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist.
Mr. Lugar and Mr. Hatch are the oldest and most senior Republicans in the Senate, both having been elected to their first terms in 1976. The question now is whether one or both of them will be retiring from the Senate in 2013.
"Sen. Hatch is doing everything he can to avoid what happened to Dick Lugar," said Tim Chambless, a University of Utah political science professor and academic outreach coordinator at the school's Hinckley Institute of Politics. "It's one thing to talk about what happened to Bob Bennett two years ago. It's another thing to talk about what happened to Dick Lugar two weeks ago."
Mr. Bennett lost his seat in 2010, coming in third at the state Republican convention and failing to make the primary ballot. Mr. Hatch did far better, placing first at the convention in April with 59.2 percent of the vote, just shy of the 60 percent required to avoid a runoff.
Mr. Hatch now faces a June 26 primary against Mr. Liljenquist, who received 40.8 percent of the delegate vote for second place. By all accounts, the incumbent Mr. Hatch enjoys huge advantages in terms of fundraising and name recognition against a candidate whose name most voters would have trouble recognizing, much less pronouncing.
"Orrin Hatch's name ID is about 100 percent. Dan's is about 50 percent," said Liljenquist spokeswoman Holly Richardson. "Which is more than it was in January, when it was 10 percent."
But Mr. Liljenquist has put the Hatch camp on the defensive by calling for a series of candidate debates, an issue that has dominated the primary race to date. Five state newspapers, including the two Salt Lake City dailies, have taken Mr. Hatch to task for refusing to participate in any televised debate and just one radio debate with his opponent.
Meanwhile, the Hatch campaign is playing protect-the-lead, citing the senator's busy schedule in Washington and full plate of state events as reasons for avoiding a televised debate. The campaign also notes that the senator debated Mr. Liljenquist and other Republican candidates twice before the April convention.
"In the real world, demanding debates is a time-worn campaign tactic used by candidates with little name recognition in the effort to gain free press attention," said Hatch spokeswoman Evelyn Call in a statement. "But Utahns know better. They know that Senator Hatch isn't afraid to defend his record."
Analysts agree that a televised debate would do little to benefit Mr. Hatch, especially given the stark contrast between the ages of the candidates. At 78, Mr. Hatch is more than twice as old as the 37-year-old Mr. Liljenquist.
Such a discrepancy is especially worrisome in Utah, the youngest state in the country with an average age of 29, versus 37 for the nation as a whole, said Mr. Chambless.
"I'm sure he [Mr. Hatch] has done his own internal polling, and while he's catching flak from the statewide dailies and others, he still feels he doesn't want to be seen on the same stage and have voters see that head full of gray hair," said Mr. Chambless. "He doesn't want that comparison to be made, and the best way to do that is not to get on stage with Dan Liljenquist."
The Liljenquist campaign took out a $125,000 television ad buy attacking Mr. Hatch for his foot-dragging. In his first ad, Mr. Liljenquist points out that the six-term incumbent in his first bid for the Senate challenged his opponent to eight debates.
A second ad blasts Mr. Hatch for voting in favor of pay increases for Congress, bailouts and earmarks.
Mr. Hatch received a bump last week when he was endorsed by tea party favorite Sarah Palin, but the endorsement prompted something of a backlash from conservatives, who have faulted Mrs. Palin for breaking with her tradition of backing underdogs who run to the right of incumbents.
"I don't feel like Sarah Palin actually looked at his record," said Russ Walker, national political director of FreedomWorks for America, a Washington-based tea party group that supports Mr. Liljenquist. "There's very little difference between Orrin Hatch's and Dick Lugar's records."
Meanwhile, the Liljenquist camp received a somewhat unexpected boost from Mr. Mourdock's win in Indiana. The campaign says donations and national media coverage surged after the Lugar defeat.
There has been no independent polling released so far in the campaign, but analysts agree that Mr. Hatch is ahead - it's just that nobody knows by how much.
"I wouldn't bet against Hatch unless I saw several polls in succession showing him behind," said Quin Monson, a political science professor at Brigham Young University. "Turnout in these primaries is notoriously low, but if the turnout comes from the right group, it has the potential to be very close."
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Valerie Richardson covers politics and the West from Denver. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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