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Sen. Orrin Hatch survives tea party primary challenge: how he did it

Orrin Hatch, a six-term veteran of the US Senate, fought off a tea party-backed challenge in Utah’s Republican primary Tuesday. His tactics could serve as a lesson for other GOP incumbents.

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It helped greatly that he had the early and enthusiastic backing of fellow-Mormon Mitt Romney, who is very popular in the adopted home state where Romney rescued the scandal-plagued 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Perhaps even more valuable among tea partiers, Hatch won the endorsement of Sarah Palin, who called him "part of the one percent of national politicians who I think should be reelected."

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In November, Hatch will face Democratic challenger Scott Howell, a former state senator and IBM executive. A poll conducted for the Deseret News and KSL-TV last week shows Hatch leading Howell 63 percent to 29 percent.

Hatch’s experience demonstrates the power incumbency can hold. But it also shows Republican office-holders – conservative though they might be – that the hot breath of the tea party movement needs to be heeded.

“People with eyes to see and ears to hear, I don’t know how they could miss that message,” Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, told the Washington Post. “Because we’ve seen both people who’ve done it well and people who have not done it as well, with obvious differences in outcomes.”

The tea party may have lost the vote in Utah this week. But in its response to the election, FreedomWorks ticked off the way Hatch had changed his tune on what it considers key issues.

“Thanks to a stalwart community of engaged grassroots activists, Senator Hatch was forced to start talking the tea party language and making the right votes,” FreedomWorks for America national political director Russ Walker said in a statement.

“In 2007, the FreedomWorks scorecard rated Hatch’s voting record at a dismal 25 percent, compared to his vastly improved rating of 88 percent in 2011,” Walker said. “The clear conclusion is that conservative grassroots activists and the Dan Liljenquist campaign forced Senator Hatch to support free-market, limited-government economic policy…. This primary was a clash of principles, and it’s clear from Senator Hatch’s rediscovered conservative rhetoric that the ideas of the tea party came out on top.”

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