SALT LAKE CITY — Republican voters decided Tuesday to give longtime Sen. Orrin Hatch a shot at what he says would be his last term in the U.S. Senate.
Hatch easily bested Dan Liljenquist in the GOP primary election by nearly a two-to-one margin. The six-term senator said voters heard his message "loud and clear."
"We need seasoned and experienced leadership in the critical Senate committees that will do what the Democrats have thus far not been willing or able to accomplish including a balanced budget, tax reform and repeal of Obamacare," he said. "These things need to be handled and I intend to handle them."
Hatch now faces Democratic challenger Scott Howell. A Dan Jones & Associates poll conducted for the Deseret News and KSL-TV last week showed the six-term senator with healthy lead — 63 percent to 29 percent — over the former state senator and IBM executive from Sandy.
"We're going to win that," the 78-year-old Hatch said. "We have to win it."
Liljenquist offered to get behind Hatch's effort to win a seventh term.
"This race has been focused on the fiscal issues facing this country and I have appreciated the opportunity to meet and talk with the voters of Utah,” said Liljenquist, a former state senator from Bountiful. “Sen. Hatch has my support moving forward and I look forward to helping get this country back on track.“
With his clout, Hatch said, Utah is poised to make a difference in Washington. "We will not get kicked around by liberal states like New York and California," he said.
Hatch tied himself to presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney at every turn during his primary campaign, vowing that the two of them would turn the nation's economic woes around. Romney endorsed Hatch early in the campaign.
The senator thanked past politicians who endorsed him and "especially Mitt Romney's unwavering support. And he's going to win, I can tell ya."
Seeing the fate of Sen. Bob Bennett at the 2010 state GOP convention, Hatch started courting tea party activists two years ago. His campaign worked to recruit more mainstream Republican delegates and he fell just 32 votes shy of winning the nomination outright at this year's convention.
And while the national tea party group FreedomWorks poured $750,000 into the state to oust Hatch at the convention, it fell largely silent afterward.
Hatch said FreedomWorks' attacks "hard to take," and though he's usually forgiving, he's no sure can forgive the organization he has described as "sleazy."
“(Hatch) started right out of the chute after the convention. The question was, would he get over 60 percent. He did. He did fine. But he had a tremendous campaign. I thought it was well run,” pollster Dan Jones said. “That's a major victory, any time you score that high.”
Jones said FreedomWorks “didn't really come in. They took their message down to Texas. But I think Hatch would have won anyway.”
Of naysayers who complained that he wasn't conservative enough, Hatch said, "They ought to wake up and look at the record." Sarah Palin also endorsed his campaign.
Hatch had a huge money advantage over Liljenquist, raising and spending nearly $10 million since his 2006 re-election. Liljenquist, meantime, raised about $780,000, including $400,000 out of his own pocket.
Liljenquist hammered Hatch on his unwillingness to debate him on television. He attacked Hatch's longevity in the Senate and blamed him for the nation's financial problems.
Hatch said he hasn't considered debating Howell yet. "I'm sure we'll have a debate or two," he said. "There's no question about that."
Contributing: Lisa Riley Roche