Hatch Headed for Seventh Term in Senate
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who was considered among the most endangered senators up for re-election this year, easily won his primary against former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist on Tuesday. With 13 percent of precincts reporting, Hatch was beating Liljenquist 69 percent to 31 percent when the Associated Press called the race.
The sixth-term senator's victory serves as a model for how to turn back a conservative revolt in the same harsh environment that cut down the career of Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind. The Utahan prepared early, tamped down on opposition fundraising, and rewrote the book on competing for delegate support at the state convention. Now he is nearly certain to win a seventh term in November, which he says will be his last.
Utah was the site of one of the first tea party victories when then-Sen. Bob Bennett lost at the state GOP convention in 2010. But Hatch heeded his fellow senator's defeat as an early warning. He chose not to treat the tea party movement as an enemy, instead reaching out to conservative activists, even hiring some to work for his campaign. His campaign also took a novel approach in preparing for the convention, populating the delegate pool with his own supporters, sparing himself the hostile group Bennett faced in 2010.
Hatch's fundraising advantage allowed him to dramatically outspend Liljenquist. And perhaps more importantly, his fundraising prowess helped scare Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, out of running against him. Chaffetz was once considered a likely bet to enter the race and was a better-known candidate than Liljenquist.
And Hatch successfully used his extensive Washington experience -- which has worked against other GOP senators in primaries -- to his advantage. He's been attacked repeatedly for his past votes in favor of raising the debt ceiling and for working with the late Sen. Ted Kennedy to craft the State Children's Health Insurance Program. But he's also effectively emphasized his role as a senior statesman, and particularly on the Senate Finance Committee, where he would likely become chair if the Republicans take back the Senate.
In addition, Hatch had the support of Mitt Romney, in a state where the presumptive GOP presidential nominee enjoys overwhelming popularity. Romney has cut ads for Hatch and contended that if he becomes president, he'll need Hatch as a partner in the Senate. He also appeared with Hatch for a photo op in Salt Lake City. It didn't hurt that Hatch also managed to get Sarah Palin's endorsement.
Liljenquist's campaign never picked up the steam it needed to match Hatch's diligent preparation. He stepped down from the state Senate and officially entered the race in January, leaving himself less than four months to prepare ahead of the state's Republican convention, where some 4,000 delegates would decide his fate. The limited pool of voters meant Liljenquist did not have to reach many Republicans off the bat. But even his supporters acknowledge that time was not on his side.
"In Dan's case, he needed to really engage in the campaign," said Russ Walker, the Vice President of FreedomWorks, a national conservative group that endorsed Liljenquist after the convention. "I think he probably needed to engage the campaign earlier as well."
Instead of serving as Lilenquist's opportunity to shine, the convention was nearly a Hatch coronation. Where Bennett was ousted just two years earlier, Hatch came close to sealing up the nomination. Liljenquist, who was seen as a major underdog heading into the party meeting, was granted a temporary lifeline and two more months to prove his mettle in a one-on-one primary battle.
But Hatch's fundraising dominance prevented Liljenquist from coming anywhere close to matching him over the airwaves, where the underdog badly needed to make his mark and raise his name ID. And FreedomWorks, which spent over $800,000 against Hatch leading up to the convention, spent only about $200,000 in the nine weeks leading up to Tuesday's election.
And while FreedomWorks attempted to oust Hatch, the Club for Growth decided to sit out the race (they had lobbied for Chaffetz to get in, but didn't get involved when he passed on the contest). And while candidates like Deb Fischer in Nebraska have benefited from a super PAC infusion of cash, no super PAC ever came to rescue Liljenquist.
Liljenquist's strength is his speaking ability and his grasp of entitlement reform. He relentlessly lobbied for several debates, but Hatch smartly agreed to just one: A radio debate on a Friday that reached a limited audience.
If Hatch goes on to win the general election, as he is expected to do, he'll be the most senior Republican in the Senate. And if the Republicans win back control of the Senate, he'll gain the title "president pro tempore," putting him third in the line of succession for the presidency.