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Sen. Hatch survives conservative primary challenge in Utah

Colin E. Braley / AP

Senator Orrin Hatch, along with his wife Elaine, thanks his supporters after his primary win Tuesday night.


Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch accomplished Tuesday night what few other veteran Republican senators have done in recent years, managing to fend off a primary challenge from his right.

The Associated Press declared Hatch the projected winner of the Utah Republican Senate nomination, emerging victorious in the first primary the veteran senator had faced since first being elected in 1976.

Conservatives had targeted Hatch for defeat this cycle, throwing their support behind state Sen. Dan Liljenquist, who hoped the Tea Party wave that has caused heartburn for establishment Republicans would carry him to victory versus Hatch. 

Beating Hatch would have marked a significant changing of the guard in Utah, one of the most deeply Republican states, where the GOP primary serves often as the de-facto general elections. Conservatives managed to deny longtime Utah Sen. Robert Bennett (R) renomination during the 2010 elections. Mike Lee rallied conservative activists to deny Bennett the GOP nod, and was subsequently elected to the Senate that fall. 

Hatch had seemed to have learned the lessons of that campaign, working assiduously to secure his conservative flank and building a warchest to beat back a Tea Party challenge. 

He tacked to the right in tone and on certain key votes, locking up endorsements from talk radio favorites and even former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who’s more often than not endorsed challengers to established Republican lawmakers than the incumbents themselves.

Hatch's re-election strategy offered a roadmap for entrenched Republicans looking to fend off a conservative challenge. The Utah senator's approach broke, for example, from that of Sen. Richard Lugar's. The Indiana senator had largely been defiant of Tea Party forces, and lost a primary to State Treasurer Richard Mourdock earlier this year. Both Hatch and Lugar took office in 1977.

The early and aggressive effort by Hatch included an attempt to scare off would-be challengers before they even entered the race. The senator was particularly public in taking on two-term Rep. Jason Chaffetz, who had been viewed as a potentially formidable challenger but ultimately declined to run for Senate.

A major trump card for Hatch, though, came in the form of Mitt Romney. Perhaps no endorsement for Hatch was more important than Romney’s, who is held in high esteem in Utah due to his own Mormon faith, as well as the work Romney had done in 2002 to turn around the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. Romney appeared with Hatch in Utah earlier this month to underscore his support for the longtime senator.