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Utah Republican convention: How Orrin Hatch (almost) beat back a tea party revolt

As Republicans in Utah have turned more moderate since 2010, veteran US Sen. Orrin Hatch has turned more conservative. Taken together, this nearly helped Hatch survive a tea party challenge at Saturday's Republican nominating convention. Instead, he faces a primary election in June.

By Patrik JonssonStaff writer / April 21, 2012

Sen. Orrin Hatch, center, debates Republican challengers for US Senate Chris Herrod and Dan Liljenquist in Salt Lake City April 4.

Rick Egan/The Salt Lake Tribune/AP

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UPDATE: Utah Republicans denied U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch a clear path to a seventh and final term Saturday, forcing him into a primary with tea party favorite Dan Liljenquist, a former state senator. Hatch fell short of the nomination by fewer than three dozen votes from the nearly 4,000 delegates at the party convention, the Associated Press reports. Despite the setback, Hatch holds a significant fundraising edge in what has become the stiffest challenge since his election to the Senate in 1976. The eventual Republican nominee will be the heavy favorite in November because of the GOP dominance in Utah. Hatch and Liljenquist will face each other in a primary June 26.

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Six-term Senator Orrin Hatch entered today’s Republican nominating convention in Sandy, Utah, with the polling winds at his back, suggesting that an aggressive and historically costly campaign to beat back a tea party revolt has worked.

Several polls relesed Saturday give Hatch the support of about 60 percent of Utah Republicans – 4,000 of whom are convention delegates chosen, in a unique system, by neighborhood caucuses throughout the state. Under Utah law, 60 percent support among delegates allows the winner to skip a scheduled June primary and head straight for the general election in November. In conservative Utah, it’s largely understood that the GOP nominee becomes the winner of the race.

If Hatch can’t reach the 60 percent threshold, he will go into a two-way primary race against his challengers, most prominently former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist and state Rep. Chris Herrod.

IN PICTURES: Tea party politics

After Utah’s longest-serving senator spent a near record $5 million on the run-up to the convention, he still has $3 million in the campaign chest to spend if the race goes to a primary.

At the same time, national tea party-affiliated groups have been outspent by groups that have backed Hatch, including the National Rifle Association. Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, has also backed Hatch, an important endorsement in heavily-Mormon Utah.

Hatch has done several things right, says Keith Poole, a political science professor at the University of Georgia, including recognizing early on that he would be challenged, focusing on the nominating process and, in essence, going back to Utah and “punching noses.” The backdrop for Hatch’s vigilance has been the plight of former US Sen. Bob Bennett, the Utah Republican who lost to a tea party candidate in 2010, and Indiana Sen. Dick Lugar, who is in the campaign of his life against tea party-backed candidate Richard Mourdock.

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