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What does Lugar's defeat portend for Hatch?

Published: Wednesday, May 9 2012 6:36 p.m. MDT

FILE - In this April 24, 2012, file photo, Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, speaks with reporters off the Senate floor before a series of votes on Capitol Hill in Washington.

J. Scott Applewhite, File, Associated Press

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SALT LAKE CITY — With a longtime Indiana senator falling to a tea party conservative in a Republican primary election this week, some wonder whether the same fate awaits Sen. Orrin Hatch.

"Hatch is next! Hatch is next!" was the cry at FreedomWorks headquarters in Washington, D.C, after six-term Sen. Dick Lugar, R-IN, went down decisively on Tuesday night, according to The Atlantic.

The national tea party group targeted both senators this year, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on efforts to "retire" them. Hatch, 78, and Lugar, 80, were both elected to the Senate in 1976.

While there are some political and personal similarities between Lugar and Hatch, they have run decidedly different campaigns. And Lugar faced some issues — chiefly that he didn't even own a house in his home state — that won't plague Hatch in Utah.

"I haven't seen any evidence yet that Hatch is in danger this year given what happened at the convention," said BYU political science professor Quin Monson. "I wouldn't bet against Hatch just because he is being pretty aggressive."

Former GOP state Sen. Dan Liljenquist narrowly forced Hatch into a primary election — Hatch fell 32 votes short of the 60 percent needed become the nominee.

"I think the races are very similar," said Liljenquist, who issued a press statement Tuesday congratulating Indiana GOP primary victor Richard Mourdock.

Indiana voters, he said, sent a clear message that it was time for someone new, the same message he's trying to get across. His campaign sent out fundraising emails Tuesday saying, "One down, one to go."

"We feel like we're going to pull off the same upset here," Liljenquist said.

Hatch campaign manager Dave Hansen said he doesn't see any similarities between the Lugar and Hatch races, calling Liljenquist's take "political rhetoric."

"Comparing Indiana to Utah is like comparing apples to oranges. They're totally different races, totally different systems and totally different states," he said.

In 2010, tea party delegates ousted GOP Sen. Bob Bennett at the state convention. But delegates tend to be more conservative than the electorate at large. Also, Hatch took note of what happened to Bennett.

Once known for working across party lines — most notably with liberal icon Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts with whom he also had a close friendship — Hatch made a point of appearing with tea party activists and rallied supporters to show up at the state convention, spending several million dollars in the process.

University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank said he doesn't think Hatch is "terribly vulnerable."

"Had Hatch not taken this set of concerns seriously, then I think you could say he could have very easily been in the same boat" as Lugar, he said. "On the other hand, Hatch is through his worst part. I think his biggest threat was the convention; it's not likely to be the primary."

Unlike Lugar, Burbank said, Hatch has been more attentive to his public image and presentation. "In some ways, Lugar's campaign played into the very question of has he been in Washington too long and is he out touch. I think that's what really hurt him more than anything else."

Another key difference between the Lugar and Hatch races is Mitt Romney. Hatch has hitched his wagon to the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, and Romney will be on Utah's Republican primary ballot.

Bennett attributes Lugar's defeat more to local Indiana issues than FreedomWorks involvement. He also said the organization's anti-Hatch campaign backfired, and if it continues through the primary, will hurt Liljenquist more than help him.

Russ Walker, FreedomWorks national political director, said the group is "going to work hard" to see that Liljenquist gets elected. Earlier, he said it intends to spend what is necessary to defeat Hatch, including an "aggressive" get-out-the-vote campaign including door-to-door contacting, phone banking, yard signs, door hangers and direct mail.  

Monson questions whether FreedomWorks is all in for the Hatch race like it was the Lugar race.

"I’ll be curious to see what starts landing in mailboxes and what we're seeing on TV," he said. "That's when you'll know where the parallel to Lugar is at."

E-mail: romboy@desnews.com

Twitter: dennisromboy

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