By Cameron Joseph - 06/26/12 09:00 AM EDT
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) is favored to win Tuesday’s primary after running a near-perfect campaign against a much younger challenger and a Tea Party angry at his tenure in office.
The six-term senator 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.
“We feel very good about it,” he said. “If all the polls are correct, the senator’s going to do very well tomorrow night.”
Two recent polls have shown Hatch with a lead of approximately 30 points, a margin that observers expect will be slightly closer on Election Day — but not by much.
Hatch campaigned hard from the start, pushing 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 the nomination.
The senator also caught a break when Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), a rising star in the GOP, decided not to run for the Senate this year.
The biggest threat to Hatch was the coalition of national conservative groups that took down Bennett — but of those groups, only FreedomWorks got seriously involved, and it ratcheted back its efforts after claiming a moral victory by denying Hatch the outright nomination at the state party’s convention.
While FreedomWorks spent more than $1 million on the race and was heavily involved in trying to defeat Hatch at the convention, less than a quarter of the money the group spent came in the last two months before the primary. Other groups, including the deep-pocketed Club for Growth, stayed on the sidelines, focused on other races.
FreedomWorks campaigns director Brendan Steinhauser said the group was still “full steam ahead” in the race and argued that “there’s always a chance” that Hatch could lose on Tuesday. However, he quickly pointed to a number of other contests the group is involved with and argued that Hatch’s increasingly conservative rhetoric and recent voting record meant it had already won.
“It was always going to be a tough battle,” he said. “Regardless of what happens, we’ve achieved a lot already. He’s already been voting more conservative the last few years, and hopefully he’ll continue to do so in the future.”
Without that group’s support, former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist (R) has struggled to keep up on the airwaves — Hatch has spent north of $10 million on the race, more than 10 times Liljenquist’s total.
Liljenquist also spent much time and effort attacking Hatch for refusing to have more than one debate with him, instead of hitting Hatch on his votes in the Senate that might have proven less than popular with conservatives.
His campaign seemed resigned ahead of the vote.
“In spite of the poll numbers we feel great, we really do,” said Liljenquist spokeswoman Holly Richardson, who brought up the polls before she was asked about them. “I think there’s a possibility, a pathway to victory for us, but getting close also would be a win. We’re not giving up. We’re in it to win it; we’re not trying to run some token campaign.”
Hatch sought early on to emphasize his conservative credentials, and reached out to Tea Party groups.
Unlike fellow longtime Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.), who lost his primary, Hatch avoided discussing votes unpopular with conservatives, like his vote in favor of the Troubled Asset Relief Program and votes to create the Department of Education and increase funding for the State Children’s Health Insurance Program.
Instead, Hatch emphasized backing from conservatives, including former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R); touted the support of Mitt Romney, who is wildly popular in the heavily Mormon state; and repeatedly talked about his decades-long push for a balanced-budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Hatch also vowed this would be his final term if he is elected.
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.
If Hatch wins the primary he’s all but guaranteed to return to Congress in the heavily Republican state. At that point he’ll become the longest-serving Republican (currently he’s tied with Lugar), and the third-longest serving senator, after Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). If the GOP wins back control of the Senate, he’ll also be in line to become chairman of the Finance Committee.