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Orrin Hatch close call in Utah: Tea party rising?

Sen. Orrin Hatch is favored to win reelection, but first he faces a primary election against tea party favorite Dan Liljenquist. Can Hatch avoid the fate of former Utah Sen. Bob Bennett, ousted in 2010 by the tea party?

By Staff writer / April 22, 2012

Former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist thanks his staff and supporters Saturday in Sandy, Utah. Utah Republicans denied U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch a clear path to a seventh and final term, forcing him into a June primary with Liljenquist.

Leah Hogsten/The Salt Lake Tribune/AP

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In the run-up to the 2012 presidential election, the tea party movement has shown little clout.

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Along the way in the GOP nominating process, a string of Republican hopefuls backed by the conservative political insurgency have risen only to fall: Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum.

In the end, a mainstream, quasi-moderate – Mitt Romney – is all but certain to carry the Republican flag into presidential campaign battle.

But in the US Senate, it’s a different story.

Two incumbent Republicans – Richard Lugar in Indiana and Orrin Hatch in Utah – are in the fight of their political life. Between the two of them, they’ve served 72 years in the Senate – six terms each.

How much do you know about the Tea Party? A quiz.

But that’s part of their problem in an age when long-term incumbency (committee seniority, appropriations bacon brought home) aren’t necessarily a plus.

In Sandy, Utah, Saturday, Sen. Hatch didn’t lose in the party convention, but he didn’t win either.

Even though he’d pivoted rightward rhetorically in recent months, even though he had a huge advantage in campaign funds, and even though he’d been embraced by the very popular Mr. Romney, Hatch was forced into a primary election by a tea party-backed former state senator, Dan Liljenquist.

True enough, Hatch failed by just a fraction to avoid a two-man runoff. He came up just 32 votes short (out of 3,908 cast) of winning the 60 percent necessary to win the nomination outright (and likely the election in a heavily-Republican state).

He thus avoided the fate of former Sen. Bob Bennett in 2010, when Bennett – a certified conservative who came under fire from the tea party for working too cooperatively with Democrats – finished third at the state party convention. Bennett was replaced by Mike Lee, now a member of the Senate Tea Party Caucus.

Mr. Liljenquist sees himself in the same mold as Sen. Lee – a generation younger than Hatch and Bennett and similar to other relative youngsters in the Senate such as Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida.

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