Hatch overcomes tea party challenge to win primary

June 27, 2012 - 12:41 AM
Utah Senate

U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, greets members of his family on a street corner outside his campaign headquarters, Tuesday, June 26, 2012, in Salt Lake City. The 78-year-old, six term senator is facing challenger, Utah state Senator, Dan Liljenquist in a primary election today. (AP Photo/Colin E. Braley)

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Sen. Orrin Hatch won the GOP primary in Utah on Tuesday, handily turning back a challenge from tea party forces hoping to jolt the Republican Party again by defeating an incumbent who occasionally strayed from the movement's focus on shrinking the federal government.

Tea partiers had more success in Oklahoma, where political newcomer Jim Bridenstine upset five-term Republican Rep. John Sullivan. Bridenstine ran to Sullivan's right and criticized the incumbent for missing hundreds of House votes in the past decade.

Sullivan seemed to be caught off guard by the closeness of the race, acknowledging recently that he had ignored the potential of a defeat for too long. He had won his five previous elections by gaining an increasingly larger percentage of the vote. In June 2009, Sullivan checked himself into the Betty Ford Center in California to combat alcoholism, and Bridenstine said during the campaign that Sullivan's history of "substance abuse" made him unfit for office.

Until this summer, Hatch, 78, had not faced a primary challenge since winning office in 1976. Former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist, who survived a 2008 plane crash in Guatemala that killed 11 of 14 on board, won just enough support at the state GOP's nominating convention to advance to the primary.

But Liljenquist faced an overwhelming financial and organizational disadvantage. Hatch, learning from the defeat two years ago of his Senate colleague Robert Bennett, spent about $10 million blanketing the airwaves and building a campaign operation unlike anything Utah had seen before.

Hatch's race was the premier event in Tuesday's primaries. In New York, 82-year-old Rep. Charlie Rangel won the Democratic primary in spite of a House censure 18 months ago for failing to pay all his taxes and for filing misleading financial disclosure statements.

A few months ago, Hatch was considered vulnerable like Bennett and six-term Republican Sen. Richard Lugar, who lost in last month's Indiana GOP primary. But Hatch got a huge endorsement from Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who said he would need Hatch in the Senate if he wins the presidency.

Romney easily won his final presidential primary Tuesday as GOP voters in Utah relished the chance to show their support for the Brigham Young University graduate.

Hatch seemed to have an answer to every criticism in his quest for a seventh term. For those who said that 36 years in office was enough, he said that he wouldn't be running again if it weren't for the opportunity to serve as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee if the GOP wins control of the Senate. He also announced it would be his last term.

For those who said he wasn't conservative enough, he gravitated to the right with his comments and his votes, scoring a 100 percent rating from the American Conservative Union in 2010 and 2011. His lifetime rating of 89 percent from the ACU would place Hatch among the Senate's most conservative lawmakers, but Hatch at times took stands that didn't sit well with the right. He worked with the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy to establish a health insurance program for poor and moderate-income children. He also voted to establish a prescription drug benefit under Medicare and to rescue financial firms facing bankruptcy without government help.

Hatch told supporters he had taken nothing for granted and that Liljenquist had run a strong race.

"I have never won an election without giving it my all," Hatch said.

Liljenquist, 37, a relative newcomer to the Utah political scene, seized on voters' concerns about the growing national debt and tried to make the case that Hatch had been a major contributor to that debt.

Hatch was widely viewed as most vulnerable when about 4,000 GOP stalwarts gathered at the state's nominating convention in April. Delegates at the convention tend to be more conservative than the GOP electorate, and the Hatch campaign team spent months trying to generate a new crop of delegates. That work paid off. In the end, Hatch won 59.2 percent of the delegates, just shy of the 60 percent he needed to avoid a runoff with Liljenquist.

The Hatch campaign included many of the state's top political consultants and strategists. It also hired some of the tea party activists who had helped generate Sen. Mike Lee's victory two years ago.

A political action committee called FreedomWorks for America spent about $900,000 trying to defeat Hatch. Russ Walker, national political director for the super PAC, said his organization believes it did the right thing by taking on the incumbent. He noted that Hatch's voting record and rhetoric had become more conservative over the past two years.

"If that's who he has become, then I think we've succeeded even if we weren't able to replace him," Walker said.

Support for the tea party movement in Utah appeared to weaken over the past two years, which played in Hatch's favor, said Quin Monson, director of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University. In 2010, when Bennett lost, nearly three-quarters of GOP voters in Utah viewed the tea party favorably. Now, less than half do.

"The tea party in Utah hit its high-water mark in 2010," Monson said.

With the primary victory, Hatch was a huge favorite to win the general election in November against Democratic candidate Scott Howell.

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Freking reported from Washington.