SANDY, Utah — Utah Republicans denied U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch a clear path to a seventh and final term Saturday, forcing the 78-year-old lawmaker into a June primary with 37-year-old former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist. Hatch fell short of the outright nomination by fewer than three dozen votes from the nearly 4,000 delegates at the party convention.
In a matter of weeks, Hatch turned the question of whether he would survive the convention into a question of whether he would reach the 60 percent threshold to earn the nomination. Despite the setback, Hatch holds a significant fundraising edge in what has become the stiffest challenge since his election to the Senate in 1976. The eventual Republican nominee will be the heavy favorite in November because of GOP dominance in Utah.
"A few months ago, a lot of people weren't giving me a chance," Hatch said. "So I feel good. I consider it a victory with everything that happened in the past."
Hatch urged that delegates endorse him so he can help repeal President Barack Obama's health care law and potentially lead the powerful Senate Finance Committee if Republicans regain control of the chamber in November. Hatch argued that he was only candidate who had the ability to enact the GOP's priorities from day one of the next congressional session.
"I'm a tough old bird, and I've never felt more eager," he said.
But Liljenquist said Hatch's seniority was overrated and said that he was ready to work with freshmen Republican Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky in changing how the Senate works.
"It is time for a new generation of leaders," Liljenquist said shortly after the results were announced. "We know it to our bones."
While most states rely on primaries to secure a party's nomination, Utah elects delegates to get first crack at determining whether a candidate should earn the nomination outright. In all, 10 candidates ran for the Senate seat and took turns Saturday attempting to convince the delegates to support them. Hatch and Liljenquist advanced from the first round of voting after Hatch got 57 percent of the vote and his challenger took 28 percent.
In the second round, the incumbent earned 59.2 percent of the vote, just short of the 60 percent needed for the outright nomination. As a result, they will face each other in the June 26 primary.
Hatch told delegates that experience can make all the difference in getting conservative priorities passed. "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," he said.
Liljenquist took issue with Hatch's assertion that his seniority was such a critical asset. He noted that Hatch had used a similar argument in previous elections and that the GOP would still be in good hands without Hatch's influence because Sen. Mike Crapo of Idaho, a graduate of Brigham Young University, was next in line to serve as the Finance Committee chairman if the Senate changes hands. That's by no means assured as other senior senators will also have a shot at heading the committee.
"No one senator is too big to fail," Liljenquist said. "No one senator is too important to lose."
Hatch began laying the groundwork for the convention even before he watched former Utah Sen. Bob Bennett lose to a tea party challenger two years ago. With a game plan designed to answer his critics' every claim – and with a boost from GOP presidential front-runner Mitt Romney – it became clear that he wouldn't experience a similar fate.
His top challengers were Liljenquist and state Rep. Chris Herrod, who didn't make the second round after getting just more than 10 percent of the first-round voting.
Whoever wins the Republican primary will face former state Sen. Scott Howell, who received the Democratic nomination on Saturday. Howell lost to Hatch in 2000 and no Democrat from Utah has been elected to the Senate since 1970.
Hatch has urged delegates to nominate him for a seventh term so that he can spend his time, money and energy on supporting other Republican candidates in tight races around the country. Most notably, he points to the assistance he could provide Romney in defeating Obama.
Romney is extremely popular in Utah because of his membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and his leadership during the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. Hatch has emphasized Romney's endorsement during speeches and debates, and it has seemingly paid dividends among first-time delegates, in particular. He introduced Hatch via a recorded video message. Romney said the GOP needed Hatch back in the Senate "if we're going to turn this country around."
Liljenquist and Herrod argued for new leadership in Washington. They said Hatch had his chance to push through meaningful reforms on entitlement programs and to rein in government spending.
This year's race essentially began in 2010, when Bennett was ousted by delegates fueled by tea party politics.
Hatch immediately recognized the challenge he would likely face from those groups and launched one of the most well-organized and expensive campaigns in the state's history. Since the beginning of 2011, he has spent more than $5 million – and he still has $3 million to spend on a primary. Hatch used his vast financial resources to build a formidable campaign team that consisted of former state GOP leaders as well as some of the tea party supporters who helped orchestrate Bennett's defeat.
Hatch also shifted to the right rhetorically and with his voting record over the past two years to address the claims that he was not conservative enough.
Bennett's loss frustrated many Republicans, who believed that a vocal minority hijacked the nomination process. This year, turnout at the neighborhood caucus meetings more than doubled and many attendees said they wanted to make sure Hatch wasn't treated in the same way.
Grant Warner of Salt Lake City said he supported Bennett two years ago and that he also supported Hatch. He said that he didn't agree with all of the votes Hatch had cast, but he agreed with most of them.
"We don't want to do what they did two years ago – throw our people with seniority out the door," Warner said.