Sen. Orrin Hatch fell just short of an outright victory at the Utah Republican convention, meaning he will face a primary to secure the GOP nomination for his own Senate seat.
Hatch finished the second round of balloting with 59.1 percent of the vote, tantalizingly close to the 60 percent threshold he needed to lock up his party's nomination at the convention.
He'll face former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist (R) in a primary, a race in which he starts off with a big edge in money and in the polls.
"Three months ago the question was, 'Would Orrin Hatch survive a convention?' Then the expectations were raised because we did so well at the caucuses," Hatch campaign manager Dave Hansen told The Hill after the vote. "We felt all along that making it through the conventions was the first priority and if we got lucky and avoided the primary that would just be an extra boost."
Hansen predicted a win in the primary race.
"We're very happy — we're ready for the primary and we'll do really well there," he said. "It's going to take a lot of work and effort but we feel very confident that the senator's going to win the primary."
Hatch had been a top target of FreedomWorks, a Washington-based group with Tea Party ties. The group spent more than $650,000 ahead of the party's caucuses last month working to unseat him, but their initial goal of knocking him out at the convention fell short — Hatch outworked and out-organized them, touting his conservative bona fides and working to make sure that at the state party caucuses, which happened last month, his supporters would turn out in big numbers.
Freedomworks Vice President Russ Walker claimed the convention results as a victory.
"This is exactly what we were hoping for today. We feel very good about the primary," Walker told The Hill after the vote.
While he stopped short of guaranteeing a major investment in beating Hatch in the primary, he said FreedomWorks would likely stay involved in the race in a big way.
"We're probably going to run a poll, see where we are… but we are committed to it, we think it's a winnable campaign at this point," Walker said.
The longtime senator starts out with a big edge in the primary: He was at 62 percent in a recent poll conducted by the Salt Lake Tribune, while Liljenquist was at just 20 percent. He also has the cash advantage, with $3.25 million to spend on the race. Liljenquist has just $240,000 cash on hand after loaning his campaign $300,000 for the race.
Hatch sounded confident and relaxed during his convention speech, ignoring his Republican opponents and lashing out at President Obama.
Hatch was introduced by a video from Mitt Romney, who remains immensely popular in Utah. "We need Orrin Hatch back in the Senate helping to lead the way," Romney said.
Soon into Hatch's speech, he went on the attack.
"Barack Obama has only been president 1,000 days but he's already set our country back about 100 years," Hatch said. "Things in Washington need to change. Government is too big. Taxes are too high. Our nation's budget is out of balance... We are threatened by a national debt that is squeezing the life out of our economy."
Hatch promised to put "Obamacare in our sights" and make sure it is repealed, and to continue his push for the Balanced Budget Amendment that he has worked for decades to pass.
Hatch's speech came after a number of second-tier candidates running against him spoke.
Liljenquist called for delegates to replace the longtime senator.
"No one senator is too big to fail," he said in his speech.
Other, less likely candidates took shots at Hatch as well. One brought out the 10-year-old daughter of a friend, who told delegates not to support Hatch.
"Don't do what a lot of you came here to do — help God instead," she said.
Another outsider candidate attacked the federal government by parodying the Ernie Ford country standard "Sixteen Tons."
"Sixteen trillion and what do you get, another day older and deeper in debt," the candidate sang. "The federal reserve is the company store."
This post was last updated at 3:51 p.m.