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Utah Sen. Mike Lee says he won’t back Orrin Hatch in GOP Senate primary

Sen. Mike Lee (R) said Friday that he wouldn’t endorse fellow Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) for reelection in the 2012 GOP Senate primary.

Lee, a freshman senator allied with the conservative Tea Party movement, said he would stay neutral in the Republican primary, paving the way for a conservative challenger to Hatch.

{mosads}”It’s not my intention to support any candidate until the democratic process has had a chance to play itself out in Utah,” Lee said on MSNBC.

Lee’s decision not to endorse Hatch speaks volumes about the political danger Hatch faces in 2012. The veteran GOP senator is expected to face a primary challenge from his right, and there’s active precedent that a challenger could succeed; Lee, after all, succeeded in wresting the Republican nomination from veteran Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) in a primary race last year.

Hatch has been working to promote his conservative credentials, and has been conducting outreach to Tea Party groups. He participated earlier this week, for instance, in an online town hall organized by the Tea Party Express, one of the largest groups in the movement.

Lee said he wishes Hatch well, but was pointed in refusing to say he would endorse his colleague for reelection.

“That’s not up to me, that’s up to the voters of Utah once we get into 2012,” Lee explained, adding that he could “absolutely endorse” Hatch — if he emerges victorious from a Republican primary.

That primary process could be rigged to benefit conservatives, though. Lee beat Bennett last year due to domination by conservatives at a state party convention. Any challenger to Hatch — Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) is said to be considered running — might take advantage of that process, too.

Tags Jason Chaffetz Mike Lee Orrin Hatch

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