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Sen. Orrin Hatch forced into primary for first time since '76, faces Dan Liljenquist in June

Howell wins Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate race

Published: Saturday, April 21 2012 12:54 p.m. MDT

Hatch supporter Sandy Kester of Brigham City shows her disappointment after the announcement that Senator Orrin Hatch will be forced into a primary against Dan Liljenquist at the Utah Republican Party 2012 Nominating Convention at the South Towne Exposition Center in Sandy on Saturday, April 21, 2012. She leans on her husband, Galen.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SANDY — Sen. Orrin Hatch fell a few votes shy of winning the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate, forcing him into a primary election for the first time since winning office in 1976.

"I consider it a tremendous victory after what has happened in the past and what we have had to do," the six-term senator said.

Former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist also counts his showing against the six-term senator a win.

"Delegates cannot be bought," he said. "When you get out in front of people and explain the vision we have for this country, they buy in. This a great day for us."

Hatch received 59.2 percent of delegate vote to Liljenquist's 40.8 percent after two rounds of voting at the state GOP convention Saturday at the South Towne Expo Center. Candidates need 60 percent to win the party nomination outright. Eight other candidates did not advance after the first ballot.

The winner of the June 26 primary will face former state Sen. Scott Howell, who bested Pete Ashdown at the state Democratic Party convention Saturday.

Howell, who entered the race only 30 days ago, said he believes moderate Republicans and Democrats will join together to defeat the eventual Republican candidate. He lost to Hatch in 2000.

Howell said he knows how to work across the political aisle to get things done, noting he ran three successful races for the Utah Senate in an area that was heavily Republican.

"I can work with both of them," the retired IBM executive said of President Barack Obama and presumptive GOP nominee for president, Mitt Romney.

FreedomWorks, a tea party PAC based in Washington, D.C., mounted a "Retire Hatch" campaign last year, and has spent $700,000 on that effort so far. Though the organization's tactics turned off many delegates, it apparently appealed to enough.

"We're pleased 40 percent chose principle over power," said Russ Walker, FreedomWorks vice president of political and grassroots campaigns. 

"Now it's on," he said. "It becomes the 'let's elect Dan Liljenquist campaign.'"

Ogden resident Audrey Tibbitts said she was undecided when she was elected a state delegate last month. She said she heard "strong anybody-but-Hatch" sentiment as she vetted candidates. She ultimately gravitated to Liljenquist because of his energy and business experience.

But "I really wanted a primary. I just want to see them both get their message out," Tibbitts said.

Liljenquist's message will start with his last name. "With a name like Liljenquist, you start out with a deficit. People can't even pronounce it."

Despite his 36 years in the Senate and his multimillion-dollar campaign war chest, Hatch seemed to be playing the underdog.

”Just a few months ago, nobody was going to give me a chance,” he said. But the senator declined to answer questions comparing his experience to that of former Sen. Bob Bennett two years ago. Delegates booted Bennett at the 2010 convention.

Hatch sounded determined when asked about the upcoming primary. “There’s no question, experience counts,” Hatch said, adding he has faith that Utah voters understand that.

Liljenquist considers Hatch's longevity and experience overrated.

"Seniority does not matter unless you're actually able to change the course of the country and actually get bills passed," he said. "I have never bought into the seniority argument here in the state and I won't buy into it there."

Liljenquist said it's time for a new generation of leaders. "We know it to our bones," he said. "The Senate is changing."

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