For Sen. Orrin Hatch, almost was not quite good enough on Saturday.
By the slimmest of margins, the sixth-term senator from Utah, who seized all of the momentum in the GOP primary the last two months, failed to seal the deal at the state Republican convention, leaving him with the task of campaigning for two more months in a one-on-one race against former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist.
But Hatch managed to avoid the fate of former colleague Bob Bennett, a Republican who was dislodged from his Senate seat two years ago during the GOP convention by the same anti-government forces that have targeted Hatch this year.
Hatch begins as a heavy favorite to win the primary, but he's left the door ajar for Liljenquist, whose survival at the convention has breathed new life into a campaign that had fallen seriously behind in March and April.
With 59.19 percent of the vote during the second round of balloting, Hatch fell less than a single percentage point short of capturing the nomination outright with 60 percent and avoiding a primary altogether. Liljenquist got 40.81 percent of the vote during the second round. During the first round of voting, Hatch came within three points of crossing the 60-percent threshold required to clinch the nomination.
Next up for Hatch is a June 26 primary.
“Today was a good win for me, and for my campaign,” Hatch said in statement. “We have come a long way in a short period of time. I am prepared and energized for the battle ahead.”
Saturday's outcome also means the conservative group FreedomWorks, which has spent more than $500,000 in Utah hoping to take down Hatch, will have two more months to make the case to voters that the six-term senator should be sent home.
FreedomWorks Vice President Russ Walker told Hotline On Call that the group will continue to work to defeat Hatch and is now officially supporting Liljenquist.
“The message will have to be different for this [stage of the race],” Walker said. “We'll start talking about the candidate. We will support Dan Liljenquist.”
Liljenquist is running to Hatch’s right, is appealing to tea party activists in the state and built a reputation in the state Legislature around the issue of entitlement reform. He also has a compelling personal story as the survivor of a deadly plane crash. Liljenquist mentioned his survival story in a speech before the roughly 4,000 delegates at the convention.
“No one senator is too big to fail,” Liljenquist said in his speech.
But the underdog will have to overcome some significant obstacles.
Money is his foremost challenge. Hatch has been preparing for the primary battle by building a hefty war chest. He finished the first quarter of 2012 with $3.2 million in the bank, dwarfing Liljenquist’s $242,000.
Fundraising was less important in the lead-up to the convention, where a select group of party insiders was the target audience. Now, the race goes before the wider pool of Republican voters, many of whom are unfamiliar with Liljenquist. Running television ads is a great way to build name ID, but the spots won’t be cheap.
Hatch, on the other hand, has high name recognition in the state after more than three decades in the Senate. Polling also shows an early advantage for Hatch. A Utah Foundation survey conducted from March 30 to April 9 by Salt Lake City-based Dan Jones & Associates showed Hatch leading Liljenquist 57 percent to 10 percent in a potential primary matchup. Dan Jones & Associates also polls for Hatch.