SALT LAKE CITY — The tea party movement solidified its presence as a force within the Republican Party two years ago when it helped orchestrate the defeat of three-term Sen. Bob Bennett at Utah GOP's nominating convention. But it fell short this weekend of doing the same to Sen. Orrin Hatch.
The different outcomes raise at least one question: Has the tea party lost some momentum or was it simply outflanked this time by Hatch, who had superior resources and tacked to the right on certain issues?
A national leader of tea party efforts, FreedomWorks, spent more than $700,000 through a super PAC to defeat Hatch. Yet, Hatch was able to easily advance to a primary and only fell 32 votes short of earning the nomination outright.
Russ Walker, national political director for the super PAC, said Saturday that the measure of the tea party's success was less about the outcome and more about the steps that Hatch needed to take to advance.
"We think it's a victory either way because Orrin Hatch has had to become very conservative and he's made a lot of promises to his constituents that he's going to vote that way over the next six years," Walker said shortly before delegates voted. "How can you say we lost our mojo when Orrin Hatch had to run to the right of all the other candidates?"
Under Utah's unique nomination system, delegates at the state party convention get first crack at determining who the party's nominee should be in the general election. However, if no candidate obtains 60 percent of the vote, then the top two vote-getters move on to the primary. That's what happened Saturday when Hatch secured about 59.2 percent of the vote while former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist won about 40.8.percent.
After the vote, delegates said Hatch did a much better job of addressing their chief concerns than Bennett did in 2010.
"Hatch saw we had this fever of not liking the incumbent and changed his tune a little bit and went back to some conservative things," said Jared Gomez of Ogden.
At the end of the day, he said that Hatch's victory said more about the race that Hatch ran than it said about the tea party's influence.
"I think the tea party is still strong," Gomez said.
But Jim Walker or Orem, Utah, disagreed. He said he considered himself a tea party member two years ago: "There was a need for it two years ago," he said. He doesn't feel that way now and believes that the effort's effectiveness has certainly waned.
"I think they're a bunch of radicals," he said.
Jim Walker exemplified how tea party influence was just one factor for delegates to consider on Saturday. In the end, he liked both candidates and was so torn over his vote that he was thrilled that the the race will go to a June primary. He voted for Hatch in the first round when the senator secured about 57 percent off the vote while Liljenquist managed only about 28 percent. But in the second round, once the field of candidates had been winnowed from 10 to just two, he voted for Liljenquist. He said GOP voters statewide deserved to have a say in the outcome.
There is no one national tea party. Rather, there are hundreds of local tea party groups around the country. FreedomWorks, as much as any organization, has tried to unify support from tea party members behind particular candidates for federal office. The organization's super PAC did not make an endorsement in the Utah race but made clear that it admired Liljenquist and wanted Hatch defeated.
A couple of months ago, some were questioning whether Hatch would survive the GOP convention. But when GOP voters gathered around the state to select delegates for the nominating convention, attendance soared. Keith Nelson of Hyrum said he has been going to his neighborhood caucus for 36 years. The average attendance was 10 or 12 people. This time, 200 people attended, thanks in part to a massive get-out-the-vote effort from Hatch's campaign.
"They all came in there loaded for bear for Senator Hatch," Nelson said.
Russ Walker said that FreedomWorks for America didn't anticipate that Hatch would be so successful in getting supporters to the caucuses. He said that's why he's happy that there will be a primary.
"Orrin Hatch spent $5.7 million, and he wasn't able to put it away with a delegate universe that was very, very supportive of Orrin," he said. "Moving into a primary, it's a brand new day."
He said that the FreedomWorks for America PAC will continue to be engaged in the Utah race throughout the primary, even as it also ramps up operations elsewhere, particularly in Indiana where it's challenging Sen. Dick Lugar, another six-term incumbent.
"We have a deep commitment to this race and we're not backing away," Walker said.