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Utah's Orrin Hatch Survives GOP Convention


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

Utah Senator Orrin Hatch survived his state's Republican nominating convention yesterday, but barely failed to get enough votes to avoid a June primary. It'll be the six-term senator's first primary in 36 years. Still, he's not complaining because convention delegates didn't toss him from the race and ultimately from the Senate. That's what they did two years ago with three-term incumbent Bob Bennett.

NPR's Howard Berkes was at the convention in Sandy, Utah and he has more.

HOWARD BERKES, BYLINE: The same forces and sentiment that cost former Senator Bob Bennett his job two years ago lingered in the convention hall in a Salt Lake City suburb. In fact, nine candidates were out to dump 78-year-old Orrin Hatch, the second most senior Republican in the U.S. Senate. And one of them sent out a little girl to make the case - 10-year-old Faith Ashworth.

FAITH ASHWORTH: So my problem is, some of you older Republicans, and I think that means everybody else in this room...


ASHWORTH: ...keep sending the same Republican politicians back to Washington, who help the Democrats spend trillions of dollars they don't have. And they expect me and other kids my age to pay for it.


BERKES: Cute little Faith was just getting started, as she recounted the Tea Party anti-incumbency theme now focused on Hatch.

ASHWORTH: Senator Hatch will be OK if you let him have more time with his grandkids and great grandkids. And his grandkids and your grandkids will be better off if we send a fresh, good guy to represent Utah in Washington, D.C. Thank you.


BERKES: But this wasn't Faith's father's state Republican convention. The audience wasn't bursting with the angry Tea Party activists who dominated two years ago. The 4,000 delegates were far more moderate, and more inclined to buy Hatch's argument that his seniority is important for a Western state with a relatively small population.

At least that's what Brigham Young University's Quin Monson discovered when he surveyed a third of the convention delegates.

QUIN MONSON: In 2010, you had a heavy contingent of delegates that were favorable for the Tea Party movement. And almost half of them said that they were active supporters. Among this group of delegates, that's fallen down below 20 per cent. And we've got a large contingent, about half of them, were delegates for the very first time.

BERKES: Two things made that happen. Orrin Hatch spent close to $6 million on his own recruitment effort. And the Mormon Church in Mormon-dominated Utah issued a non-partisan appeal to members to get involved. Still, there's enough concern about Hatch's ties to Washington to force him into his first primary in three decades.

Former state Senator Dan Liljenquist is Hatch's primary opponent.

DAN LILJENQUIST: The people of the state of Utah tomorrow morning, when they look at the paper, will see a new option they haven't had in 36 years. It is that option that it's time for change in Washington, D.C., and we feel great about our chances. Thank you.


BERKES: Hatch said he wasn't disappointed by his failure to avoid a primary.

SENATOR ORRIN HATCH: We're elated that we did as well as we did. A lot of people were predicting my demise here. People didn't give me much of a chance. And I think we've proven that I'm a tough old bird and it's not an easy one to...


BERKES: Hatch is a tough old bird with a nest full of cash - more than $3 million yet to spend and the ability to raise millions more.

Liljenquist says he can't possibly raise that much money but he'll get anti-Hatch help from superPACs, including the Tea Party-backed FreedomWorks, which already aired ads attacking the incumbent. FreedomWorks organizer Russ Walker is cagey about the primary effort.

RUSS WALKER: It is going to require us to look carefully at how much we're going to spend based on our needs for the fall. 'Cause it's vital to us that we not only recapture the Senate and expand the majority, but we recapture it with senators who are fiscal conservatives.

BERKES: Which has FreedomWorks targeting races in at least five other states.

Hatch's ability to spend, his total name recognition and an endorsement from fellow Mormon and presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, make him the clear favorite, says BYU political scientist Quin Monson.

MONSON: Unless he makes a major mistake in a way that sends a string signal to voters that he's not up to the job, then I expect him to do well in the primary.

BERKES: In an overwhelmingly Republican Utah, the June primary winner is considered the senator-to be.

Howard Berkes, NPR News, Salt Lake City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Howard Berkes is a correspondent for the NPR Investigations Unit.
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  • Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) overcame Tea Party opposition and garnered the majority of votes at the state's Republican convention. He didn't win enough votes to claim the GOP senate nomination outright.
  • 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.