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Associated Press
U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, right, shakes hands with Democratic challenger Scott Howell before the start of the VoteUtah 2012 U.S. Senate debate Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2012, in Provo.

SALT LAKE CITY — U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch defeated his Democratic challenger in Tuesday's general election, securing a seventh, and what he says will be his final, term in office.

Hatch faced Scott Howell in a state that hasn't elected a Democrat to the Senate since 1970.

Howell, 58, is a former Democratic state senator who previously lost to Hatch in 2000. He garnered headlines recently when he made Hatch's age and the senator's 36 years in office a major point of his campaign, sending emails to voters suggesting the 78-year-old may retire or die before the end of his term.

Hatch's campaign countered that the longtime incumbent had no plans to do either. Hatch has said if re-elected, this would be his last term.

Labeling himself a conservative Democrat, Howell said Hatch had moved too far to the right in an attempt to win tea party support, contributing to partisan gridlock in Washington. Howell claimed he learned to work on both sides of the aisle while serving as the Democratic leader in the state Senate.

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Hatch, meanwhile, remained confident, noting Utahns keep re-electing him because they believe he is effective. He had played up his seniority in the Senate, arguing that he was the only candidate who had the ability to enact Republican priorities from day one of the next congressional session. Hatch also had repeatedly reminded voters that he is likely next in line to head the powerful Senate Finance Committee if he was re-elected and Republicans regain control of the chamber.

However, winning a seventh and final term proved to be Hatch's stiffest challenge since his election to the Senate in 1976. He was forced into a primary after Utah Republicans denied him a clear path to the general election at the state party convention in April. He spent more than $10 million campaigning to retain his seat.