Sen. Orrin Hatch And His Fight To Stay In Congress

Two years ago, Robert Bennett, a Republican senator from Utah, was voted out of office at the state's Republican convention. Bennett's friend, Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, has worked hard over the past year to avoid the same fate at today's state convention. Weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz talks with NPR's Howard Berkes about the results of today's convention vote.

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

Let's go to Sandy, Utah now where delegates at a Republican Party convention have denied that state's senior senator, Orrin Hatch, an easy path to re-election this fall. Hatch needed 60 percent of the delegates to endorse him in order to avoid a primary fight, but he fell less than 50 votes short. So he'll now face former State Senator Dan Liljenquist in the June primary.

NPR's Howard Berkes is covering the story from Sandy. Howard, first of all, was this expected?

HOWARD BERKES, BYLINE: Well, given several polls and events of this convention of delegates, this fits what those polls indicated that it was going to be very close to that 60 percent threshold that Orrin Hatch needed to avoid a primary. There were polls of delegates that also took into account what kinds of issues they were looking at, including seniority, which is Orrin Hatch's biggest argument for re-election. And given the responses, everybody expected it to be close, maybe not as close as 50 votes as it was, but this was not unexpected.

RAZ: He - Hatch has already served six terms as Utah's representative in the U.S. Senate. Why is he facing such a huge challenge this time around?

BERKES: Well, this goes back to two years ago. If you remember former Utah Senator Bob Bennett, who was a three-term incumbent, was trounced in this very same state convention in a Tea Party revolt. And the people who successfully targeted Bennett, who claimed that he wasn't conservative enough went after Orrin Hatch in the same way.

FreedomWorks, a D.C.-based superPAC, threw several hundred thousand dollars at this campaign to defeat Hatch, and the argument was the same that Orrin Hatch has been in Washington for 36 years. The spending that these Republicans decry continued for those 36 years. The budget's out of control. Hatch was in a position of authority, they argued. He wasn't able to get control of federal spending. So it's time for him to go, time to get somebody else in here. And that's generally an appealing argument in a state like Utah, which is very Republican, very conservative. That's why Orrin Hatch face such difficulty.

RAZ: Howard, what can you tell us about Dan Liljenquist, his challenger?

BERKES: He's a former state senator. He had some success as a freshman state senator, and he sells himself as someone who, like Romney, has the business experience to make Washington right, to put it on a tough budget and to keep it on budget.

RAZ: What about Hatch's prospects for the June primary, is it going to be a tough fight for him?

BERKES: It could be, given Dan Liljenquist's determination to unseat Orrin Hatch. Orrin Hatch will throw a lot of money. He's already spent close to $6 million. He'll throw a lot of money at this. But it'll really be a battle of who's closer to Mitt Romney. Mitt Romney endorsed Orrin Hatch, appeared by video at the convention today and endorsed him a few months ago.

But Liljenquist argues that he actually is more like Romney, and he actually worked for Bain consulting company that Romney worked for, and he has the business experience that Romney's looking for in the U.S. Senate. So that may be the sort of decisive factor for Utah voters as they look at this election. As who's best to send to Washington with Mitt Romney, clearly in Utah, overwhelmingly Republican Utah, Romney will be the choice here.

RAZ: That's NPR's Howard Berkes covering the Utah Republican Party convention in Sandy, Utah. Howard, thanks.

BERKES: You're welcome, Guy.

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