Six US Senate races where the tea party counts

After playing kingmaker in the 2010 election cycle, the tea party movement is having a less prominent role in 2012. But its support or opposition could swing some key races and even determine whether Republicans win control of the Senate. Here are six US Senate contests where the tea party could make a difference.

1. Utah: Sen. Orrin Hatch survives tea-party assault

Rick Egan, The Salt Lake Tribune/AP
US Sen. Orrin Hatch (l.), chats with challenger Dan Liljenquist (r.) during a break in a debate in early April at Juan Diego High School in Salt Lake City, Utah. Senator Hatch and Mr. Liljenquist will face off in the GOP primary June 26.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah defied his tea party critics by winning the GOP primary on June 26. With a $10 million war chest, Senator Hatch outspent tea-party challenger Dan Liljenqujist by more than 10 to 1 and built a formidable campaign operation.

FreedomWorks, a national tea-party umbrella group, spent more than $945,000 on television ads, mailings, and a get-out-the-vote effort attacking Hatch, but could not repeat one of the tea party movement's first national triumphs, when it topped three-term Sen. Robert Bennett (R) of Utah in a surprise upset at the Republican state convention in 2010.

Absorbing the lessons of that defeat, Hatch recruited supporters to run as delegates to the state convention and told voters that, should he win, this will be his last term. Once known for working across party lines – most notably with liberal icon Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts, with whom he also maintained a close personal friendship – he also beefed up his conservative voting record and made a point of appearing at public events with tea party activists. The tea party movement is less popular in Utah than it was in 2010 and more divided. Nearly thee-quarters of GOP voters in Utah viewed the tea party favorably in 2010, down to less than 50 percent now, according to the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University.

On April 21 at the state GOP convention, Hatch fell just a 32 votes short of the 60 percent to avoid a primary runoff. He won his June 26 primary with 67 percent of the vote and a big endorsement from Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Hatch is widely favored to defeat Democratic challenger Scott Howell in the November general election.

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