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.

Rick Egan/The Salt Lake Tribune/AP
Sen. Orrin Hatch, center, debates Republican challengers for US Senate Chris Herrod and Dan Liljenquist in Salt Lake City April 4.

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.

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.

In both Utah and Indiana, national tea party groups have tried to replicate their numerous successful attacks against more moderate incumbents in 2010, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars from national donors to air attack ads against two senators whom they see as having lost some of their conservative values and have thus damaged efforts to fight the more progressive agenda of Democrats and the White House.

“[Hatch] has a history of reaching across the aisle to work with Democrats, which obviously does not sit well with many tea party activists and other conservatives,” write CNN reporters Ashley Killough and Paul Steinhauser. “But Hatch has taken steps since the mid-term elections to fight that criticism by highlighting his conservative chops.”

That shift has been reflected in score cards by various conservative groups, like the Club for Growth, which has not endorsed anyone in the race. Hatch received a 99 percent rating from the group in 2011, but that was up from a lifetime rating of 78. Club for Growth spokesman Barney Keller told FactCheck.org, a project by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, that Hatch underwent “an election year conversion,” and that his full record is “hardly conservative.”

Just as importantly as Hatch’s “conversion,” Utah voters, too, have changed their priorities, polls suggest, with one survey saying that 44 percent of voters want an incumbent to maintain seniority for the state, a figure that was 17 percent two years ago. Moreover, one poll conducted by the Utah Foundation and the Hinckley Institute of Politics suggested that Utah residents had selected a more moderate set of delegates than in 2010 amid a decline of support for the tea party.

That shift came after many state Republicans who believed the tea party hijacked the nomination process in 2010 flooded this year’s neighborhood caucuses, where participation nearly doubled this year compared to 2010.

"They've chosen delegates that are more moderate in their views and more representative of the voting population," Morgan Lyon Cotti, research director for the Utah Foundation, tells Reuters.

"Instead of being concerned about some issues that can be pretty divisive between Republicans and Democrats, like states issues, immigration and gun control, we saw that some of those things had fallen out of the top 10 and one of the top concerns was partisan politics," she said.

While some pundits say the Utah and Indiana races are a test of the tea party staying power after rising up in 2009 to fight government bailouts and health care reform, others suggest Hatch’s turn to the right after Bennett lost in 2010 is itself a victory and a symbol of how successful the tea party has been in reviving conservative ideals and focusing the debate in Washington on the national debt and Obama’s economic policies.

Mr. Liljenquist, who has received tea party support for his challenge of Hatch, was hardly ready to cede victory in Utah yet. “We feel great,” he tells Reuters. “Delegates are notoriously difficult to poll.”

IN PICTURES: Tea party politics

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