Sen. Orrin Hatch is expected to win Utah’s GOP primary today by a wide margin, and his campaign will be looked to as a model of success for embattled Republican incumbents staving off a conservative primary challenge.
While other Senate candidates supported by the GOP establishment have had varied success this cycle, Hatch, 78, is heavily favored to defeat former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist, a solid candidate who ultimately lacked the time and money necessary to convince voters it was time for the six-term incumbent to go.
“Hatch seems pretty set,” said Jeff Hartley, a Utah lobbyist and former executive director of the state GOP. “I can’t imagine a scenario where he doesn’t win by a significant margin.”
Two polls released in the last days of the race found Hatch holding distant leads over Liljenquist. A poll of 737 registered voters conducted for the Deseret News/KSL-TV from June 15 to 21 found Hatch ahead 60 percent to 32 percent. The poll had a 3.6-point margin of error.
Another poll by Key Research and Brigham Young University found Hatch way out in front in several turnout scenarios. “Senator Hatch is very likely to win, the uncertainty is by how much,” BYU’s Quin Monson concluded.
The Hatch campaign began building the groundwork for his 2012 effort almost as soon as his Senate colleague Bob Bennett lost at the April 2010 state party convention to conservatives who attacked his voting record. Hatch is conservative but has shown a willingness to work across the aisle over his nearly 36 years in the Senate, not unlike Bennett.
That December, Hatch hired Dave Hansen as his campaign manager, and Hansen immediately got to work hiring advisers and plotting out a path to victory in Utah’s unique convention system. Step one was beefing up Hatch’s already robust fundraising prowess. He had $2.5 million in the bank by the end of 2010 and went on to turn in personal record-breaking quarters through 2011. By June 6, Hatch had raised $9.8 million, spent $10.5 million and had $1.9 million in cash on hand.
Another component included highlighting Hatch’s conservative bent and potential chairmanship of the Senate Finance Committee, should Republicans regain the majority. While making the case that Hatch’s seniority was too important to lose, Hansen’s operation worked to pack the March 15 local caucuses with supporters and run their own slate of delegate candidates. Hatch dominated the precinct caucuses, and those elected delegates helped him not only survive the April 21 convention but come painstakingly close to winning the nomination outright.
“I would say it’s a reflection of how well they’ve run the campaign, how early they started, how much money they committed to it, and how poorly the Liljenquist campaign was run,” Hartley said. “I think a better-run campaign from a challenger could have made it closer, but not the campaign that was run against him this time.”
Hatch’s prospects brightened when Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R) announced in August that he would run for re-election rather than take on Hatch. That decision helped keep more outside groups, including the Club for Growth, from entering the fray. Such organizations played integral roles in helping insurgent challengers oust Indiana Sen. Dick Lugar in the GOP primary and force Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst into a GOP runoff.
Liljenquist did not enter the race until January, leaving him little time to escalate his cash flow and name recognition. Hatch debated him just once after the convention, and Liljenquist lacked the funds necessary to compete on the airwaves.
While Liljenquist gained a late endorsement from former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), Hatch received early backing from presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and a surprising endorsement from former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. Romney, who will also grace today’s ballot, has sky-high popularity in Utah and appeared on Hatch’s behalf in radio and TV ads.
Hatch will be the overwhelming favorite to win re-election in November and has said his seventh term would be his last.