Hatch wins primary, fends off strong challenge from right

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) easily beat his primary opponent Tuesday night, thwarting a challenge from the right and a threat from conservative groups to end his 36 years in the Senate.

Hatch defeated former Utah state Sen. Dan Liljenquist by 68 percent to 32 percent with 27 percent of precincts reporting. The Associated Press has called the race.

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He is all but guaranteed reelection in the heavily-Republican state and will become the longest-serving Republican senator. If the GOP wins back control of the Senate, he’ll also be in line to become chairman of the Finance Committee. He has said if he wins another term this will be his final one.

The six-term senator campaigned hard from the start.

He pushed for an early knockout at the state’s GOP convention, but he fell just short of the 60 percent he needed for the outright nomination. But his strong showing there, combined with his take-nothing-for-granted campaign, had him favored for renomination.

The biggest threat to Hatch was the coalition of national conservative groups that took down Bennett — but his strong campaign scared off a number of those groups, and only FreedomWorks got seriously involved.

The result is a defeat for the group, who spent more than $1 million on the race — though they ratcheted back their efforts greatly there after Hatch nearly won the party’s nomination at the state convention, held in April. Three quarters of the money they spent came in the lead-up to the convention.

Hatch has been in campaign mode since his old friend, Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah), was blocked from re-nomination in 2010 during the state’s complicated nominating process.

His assiduous courting of Republicans to attend the state’s caucuses, the huge $10 million warchest he built for the campaign and his rightward rhetorical tack in the last two years sealed the deal for him.

Unlike longtime Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.), who lost his primary, Hatch ran a take-nothing-for-granted campaign. He emphasized time and again his endorsement from Mitt Romney, who is extremely popular in the heavily Mormon state, as well as from Tea Party favorites including former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R). He also repeatedly stressed his decades-long push for a balanced-budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Liljenquist’s campaign never really got off the ground — he assailed Hatch for some of his votes but spent an inordinate amount of time attacking him for ducking debates, and was badly outspent and out-organized in the state.

While polls long showed he was well-liked by Utah Republicans in general, Hatch’s true vulnerability lay in the state’s unusual three-step nominating process— a fact he recognized early on.

The system is set up so that the state parties hold elections for delegates to the state conventions. Those delegates then vote on whom the party’s nominee should be, and a primary is only held if no candidate wins 60 percent support.

Bennett lost largely because he didn’t realize he had a problem until just before the convention, at which point it had already been packed by his rivals’ supporters. Hatch put a lot of time and effort into making sure he wouldn’t be ousted by activists. The senator nearly pulled off an outright victory, with 59 percent support at the party’s April convention, and since the caucuses his reelection was highly probable.