Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch and former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist talk before a debate at KSL NewsRadio in Salt Lake City on June 15. The two face each other in the Utah Republican primary on Tuesday.
Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch and former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist talk before a debate at KSL NewsRadio in Salt Lake City on June 15. The two face each other in the Utah Republican primary on Tuesday. Laura Seitz/AP
The Tea Party revolution swept through Utah in 2010, when conservative favorite Mike Lee ousted three-term Republican Sen. Bob Bennett at the state party convention.
Perhaps the person watching the upset closest that day was Utah's longest-serving senator, Orrin Hatch. Now 78, Hatch is trying to keep his job in an anti-incumbent atmosphere that led to the defeat last month of his colleague Richard Lugar of Indiana.
On Tuesday, Utah Republicans will go to the polls to decide if Hatch will be nominated to run for a seventh term. He faces his toughest challenger yet in former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist, who was just 2 years old when Hatch was first elected to the Senate in 1976.
"Since 2005, there have been 49 new senators elected and there are 10 more retiring this year," Liljenquist said at the state party convention in April. "There is a youth movement in the Senate and it is happening right now. These are the new generation of leaders we desperately need, and I want to be there with them."
Hatch came to the convention ready to fend off Liljenquist's challenge with a powerful endorsement from his ally, presumptive GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
"I'm asking you today to join me in supporting my friend Sen. Orrin Hatch," Romney said.
Hatch asked GOP delegates to send him back to the Senate one final time.
"This is my last campaign, but it's not the end," he said. "It will be my last six years in the U.S. Senate, but they'll be the best six years and the most critical six years of all."
In the end, Hatch got 59 percent of the delegate vote. In Utah, candidates need 60 percent to avoid a primary, so Hatch faces a challenge for the first time in his Senate career.
In the months after the convention, Hatch has done what most incumbents do: limit his contact with his opponent. Liljenquist in turn called for eight debates. The two candidates finally met in one live radio debate broadcast on KSL NewsRadio in Salt Lake City earlier this month.
Liljenquist tried to paint Hatch as a progressive Republican.
"You voted over and over to raise the debt ceiling," he said. "That is a tax increase that you've deferred on a whole generation of Americans."
"Well let me get this straight," Hatch replied. "Apparently, I'm responsible for everything that's wrong in the federal government. That's total BS and everybody knows it."
Hatch has raised more than 12 times the campaign cash that Liljenquist has raised, and organizations like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have put out ads touting his pro-business record.
Liljenquist's website is full of extended video ads attacking Hatch's voting record, including a series called "fiscal child abuse," where an older man explains the national debt to his granddaughter.
The Numbers Game
But Liljenquist's conservative tactics may not be pulling in the voters he needs to win the primary.
"Liljenquist was always hoping to win this thing in convention or at least get rid of Hatch as they were able to do with Bennett," said Kirk Jowers, executive director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah. "Because once you get to the primary, people know Hatch, they're used to him and Hatch has all the money. It made the numbers game almost impossible for Liljenquist."
In addition to Hatch's name recognition, Liljenquist also faces a steady decline in voter turnout. According to the nonpartisan Utah Foundation, turnout in the state hit an all-time low of 50 percent in 2008. In a survey released this month, the group asked what issues are prompting voters to stay home on Election Day.
"They listed partisan politics as one of the top issues," said Morgan Lyon Cotti, a researcher on the project. "And this is not only interesting because it is a top issue, but because this is the fourth time we've done the survey and we've never even seen partisan politics brought up."
Hatch maintains he's worked across party lines to build consensus. In an interview with NPR, he made the case that he could rise to a very powerful position in the Senate if Republicans take back a majority.
"It isn't a desire to just hold onto this job. If I wasn't the Republican leader on the finance committee, about to become chairman of the finance committee, with Mitt Romney as president, I probably wouldn't have run again," he said. "But I would feel like I let Utah down. I'd feel like I let my country down."
While Hatch got 59 percent of the vote at the state convention, he needs only a simple majority in Tuesday's closed primary to move forward. Despite the math, Liljenquist will keep touting Tea Party values until the final votes are counted.