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?

Leah Hogsten/The Salt Lake Tribune/AP
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.

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

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.

"For a long, long time Senator Hatch has been all we've known," Liljenquist said after Saturday’s convention. "People are looking for leadership, passion and change."

"My background is corporate turnaround," he said. "If there was ever a time for a corporate turnaround team to go to Washington, it's now." (Coincidentally, Liljenquist once worked as a strategy consultant for Bain & Company, the private equity and consulting firm Romney once ran.) 

That kind of turnaround is just what the tea party is looking for.

FreedomWorks, the tea party Super Pac chaired by former Texas congressman Dick Armey, was quick to laud – and take some credit for – Liljenquist’s showing in Utah Saturday.

“Dan Liljenquist is a rock solid conservative who will uphold the Constitution and stand by Senator Mike Lee in Washington to get America’s spending problem under control,” said FreedomWorks of America national political director Russ Walker. “Senator Hatch had 36 years to get his act together, but continues to put power over policy. Utahns are ready for a change.” 

The organization, which put $700,000 into defeating Hatch, lays out the tea party complaint against the longtime incumbent this way:

“In his 36 years in the Senate, Orrin Hatch has lost his way from constitutionally conservative principles, voting for the precursors to ObamaCare, voting to support TARP, to establish the Department of Education, the auto bailouts, and the Fannie and Freddie bailouts. Hatch also advocated for the appointments of liberal Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer, and to confirm Ben Bernanke as Fed Chairman, Eric Holder as Attorney General, and Timothy Geithner as Secretary of the treasury.”

“It hasn’t been easy,” Hatch acknowledges. “We’ve got outside groups coming in here that are just vicious and awful. They don’t tell the truth. That’s been really hard for me to take. Anti-Hatch activists … they don’t care what the facts are or anything else.” He didn’t mention FreedomWorks by name, but there was no doubt who Hatch was talking about.

The race in Utah is still Hatch’s to lose. His campaign warchest is many times larger than Liljenquist’s, he has strong name recognition, and in public at least he seems energized by the challenge.

But Hatch hasn’t faced a Republican primary election since he was the underdog in 1976, running second in the party convention – the same place Dan Liljenquist finds himself today.

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

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