As presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney and fellow Republican Party leaders prepare to convene in Park City, Utah, this weekend for what is shaping up to be the second biggest power gathering of the summer (after the convention, of course) the Utah GOP will have its focus turned on another race – the Senate primary.
Longtime incumbent Orrin Hatch faces a primary challenge from former state senator and Tea Party candidate Dan Liljenquist, and this weekend marks the final slog before the contest, which will take place on Tuesday, June 26.
Hatch, 78, is currently tied for the title of longest-serving Republican senator – a distinction he shares with outgoing Sen. Richard Lugar. He serves as the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and he’s been in the Senate for 36 years. His opponent was 1 year old when Hatch was first elected to represent the state.
But Hatch faces a problem shared by many of his Republican colleagues in Congress – an energetic Tea Party challenger. Hatch was narrowly forced into a primary in April after Liljenquist scored the support of 41 percent of the delegates at Utah’s Republican convention. Under Utah’s rules, Hatch would have had to receive the support of at least 60 percent of the delegates in order to avoid a runoff.
Liljenquist checks off many of the typical Tea Party boxes: He’s a fierce advocate of less spending who has received the backing of the Tea Party group “FreedomWorks,” and he was endorsed by Rick Santorum. The rhetoric in the primary has followed similar lines to other Tea-Party-vs.-establishment primary battles we’ve seen so far – with Liljenquist alleging Hatch is not a true conservative and Hatch saying that he is.
Hatch did earn a distinction not common among the “establishment” candidates – the endorsement of Sarah Palin. The woman who is viewed by many as a sort of Tea Party kingmaker described him as “part of the 1 percent of national politicians who I think should be re-elected.”
Hatch has had a major financial advantage over Liljenquist. He’s raised just less than $10 million, while Liljenquist has raised a little under $1 million, and Hatch has outspent his Tea Party challenger by a 10-to-1 margin.
Hatch also has had another tool in his arsenal - Mitt Romney.
Romney is very popular in Utah. In 2008, he won the state’s Republican primary with 89 percent of the vote, and there’s no indication that his popularity has diminished since then. He endorsed Hatch early, and he appeared in a TV ad supporting the six-term incumbent in March, ahead of the state convention. He’s campaigned for Hatch in the state more recently, as well. He met up with Hatch in Salt Lake City for a photo-op at the beginning of June.
Liljenquist has attempted to tie himself to Romney, as well. Liljenquist worked for Bain Consulting, an arm of Bain Capital, for several years in the early 2000s, after Romney had left the company, a work experience that he’s highlighted throughout his campaign.
Currently, it appears as though Romney won’t be doing any campaigning with Hatch over the weekend. Polling indicates that won’t be a problem for Hatch, however. He appears to have a solid lead over Liljenquist headed into Tuesday’s contest.
The Utah primary will also mark the very end of the 2012 GOP presidential primary cycle. Utah is the final state to hold a Republican presidential contest.