Sen. Orrin Hatch Faces Possible Upset In Utah

On Thursday, Utah Republicans will hold neighborhood caucuses, in which they will select delegates to the party's state convention. Utah senior Sen. Orrin Hatch hopes to avoid the fate that befell his former colleague, Robert Bennett, two years ago. To that end, Hatch has tried to ensure he has the support to avoid losing his seat.

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One of the Senate's most familiar faces could lose his seat. Republican Orrin Hatch of Utah has served in the Senate for 36 years. And now he faces a challenge from the right. Utah's Republican caucuses are this Thursday. And already, Senator Hatch has spent more than a million dollars to stay in office, while FreedomWorks, a group aligned with the Tea Party, has spent nearly three-quarters of a million to throw him out. Andrea Smardon of member station KUER tells us more.

ANDREA SMARDON, BYLINE: Dan Liljenquist was 2 years old when Orrin Hatch took office. Now, he thinks it's time for the senior senator to step down and make way for the next generation.

DAN LILJENQUIST: You know, 60 percent of the state wasn't even born when Orrin Hatch was elected the first time in 1976. And so there's a real frustration with blaming Washington for problems when Orrin Hatch - to many people - represents Washington.

SMARDON: Liljenquist, who stepped down from the state Senate to run for Hatch's seat, says he's more fiscally conservative than the incumbent senator and is supported by the Tea Party. He's confident about winning the race, in part because he saw Mike Lee beat then-Senator Bob Bennett in the 2010 Republican convention without even going to a primary vote. Under Utah law, if 60 percent of the delegates vote for one candidate, then that person becomes the party nominee.

LILJENQUIST: One of the interesting dynamics that's happened just in the last few years is there's been a dramatic shift downward in the average age of these delegates. It's indicative of a shift to a new generation of people getting involved. We don't think you can turn the clock back on that.

SMARDON: Quin Monson is the associate director for the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University, and he thinks Hatch has reason to worry.

QUIN MONSON: He is facing a serious threat if only because Senator Bennett was defeated in this very process two years ago. And the same groups that mobilized to defeat Senator Bennett are at it again.

SMARDON: The difference, Monson says, is that Hatch is prepared.

MONSON: He's had the time and has put in the effort to identify and mobilize a group of supporters to come to the caucus on his behalf and try to become delegates.

SMARDON: The wild card in this race is the influence of outside groups. There are two superPACs running pro-Hatch ads. And FreedomWorks for America -chaired by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey - has been attacking him. Hatch discounts the group as out-of-state libertarians who are trying to infiltrate the GOP.

SENATOR ORRIN HATCH: If we let those people come in and take over this state, I mean, my gosh, it's going to be a doggone mess here. And they've told me, frankly, we're going to take over the Republican Party. And I said, no, you're not. And one reason I'm running such a strong campaign is to make sure that they don't. We just can't let that happen.

SMARDON: Russ Walker is the national political director of FreedomWorks. He says Utah citizens requested their involvement in the race, and that Utah's population is more fiscally conservative than Orrin Hatch is.

RUSS WALKER: Utah can do better than what they have. And this is about transforming Washington, D.C., and transforming the U.S. Senate so that we can create a smaller, more limited form of government.

SMARDON: Presidential candidate Mitt Romney has cut TV and radio ads, and voiced robocalls in support of Hatch. BYU's Quin Monson says it's a level of campaigning formerly unheard of at the caucus level, and it may be raising the stakes for caucuses to come. After Thursday, the candidates will have until the convention on April 21st to make their case to the chosen delegates that they deserve to be Utah's Republican nominee for U.S. Senate. For NPR News, I'm Andrea Smardon in Salt Lake City.

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