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Dan Liljenquist Works to Breach Orrin Hatch’s Stronghold

Former State Senator, Hoping to Duplicate Lugar Upset, Has Work Cut Out for Him in Utah Primary

Rick Egan/Associated Press/Salt Lake Tribune
Sen. Orrin Hatch (left) and Dan Liljenquist talk during a break in an April debate in Salt Lake City.

Less than five weeks remain for Dan Liljenquist to make his case to Utah Republicans that six terms is enough for Sen. Orrin Hatch.

The former state Senator still has plenty of ground to make up to overcome the household name Hatch has made himself over the past 36 years. Despite entering the 2012 cycle vulnerable to a conservative primary challenge, the sense on the ground in Utah is that Hatch is far more likely than not to return to the Senate in 2013.

“I would say if the election were held today, Hatch would probably have a 15-to-20-point win,” state Senate President Michael Waddoups (R) said.

Luckily for Liljenquist, the primary is June 26. But time is running out.

It’s been a month since the Utah Republican convention, where Hatch narrowly missed securing the nomination among 4,000 locally elected delegates. With a broader primary electorate, his prospects should be even brighter.

The pace of the race is just now picking up. Both candidates are finally on the air, as is at least one outside group supporting Hatch. And former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) on Tuesday officially endorsed the longtime Senator over his young, conservative challenger — a development the Hatch campaign didn’t know was coming.

FreedomWorks has spent more than $700,000 so far in an effort to defeat Hatch, and the conservative, D.C.-based group is continuing to tap into its 15,000 members in the state to build a volunteer and paid ground operation on Liljenquist’s behalf. But the Club for Growth, which spent $1.7 million in the effort to oust Indiana Sen. Dick Lugar in a primary earlier this month, never engaged.

Kirk Jowers, director of the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics, said there doesn’t appear to be anything on the horizon that’s going to significantly cut into Hatch’s lead.

“It’s hard to imagine the game-changer,” Jowers said. “That’s why you get a Sarah Palin jumping on and Club for Growth backing away, because it doesn’t look like there’s a real logical path for Liljenquist to win this one.”

Still, Hatch and his allies aren’t taking their foot off the gas. Utah nonprofit Freedom Path just dropped $60,000 to run a TV ad this week that favorably ties Hatch to fellow Utah Sen. Mike Lee (R), who was elected in 2010 and remains closely affiliated with the tea party. It’s the same ad the group first aired in July, a month before Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R) announced he was taking a pass on the Senate race.

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