Utah Senate primary: anti-climax?

posted at 10:01 am on June 26, 2012 by Ed Morrissey

Utah Republicans go to the polls today to select their nominee for the US Senate, but it’s a mighty different race than two years ago.  In 2010, Tea Party activists dethroned Bob Bennett at the convention, preventing him from getting on the primary ballot.  Six-term Senator Orrin Hatch learned a lesson and out-organized the activists at the convention, and is cruising to a seventh term.

The New York Times chalks it up to decreased anger in the Tea Party:

Mr. Hatch has been running an aggressive and well-financed campaign to fend off his first primary challenge since he was elected in 1976. But his saving grace, political analysts said, may be that Utah voters don’t seem as angry as they were when they ousted Senator Robert F. Bennett in a 2010 party convention.

“There isn’t the same anti-incumbent, anti-establishment fervor that existed in 2010,” said LaVarr Webb, a Republican political consultant. “The economy has changed, and people are feeling better.”

Even Mr. Bennett agreed. “The atmosphere has changed enormously,” he said. “There’s as strong a pro-incumbent wave in Utah as there was an anti-incumbent wave two years ago. It’s a backlash.”

Utah’s jobless rate is 5.8 percent, sharply lower than the national rate of 8.2 percent. It has a humming export economy, and major employers like Goldman Sachs and Boeing have been expanding. And much of the Republican desire for change is now aimed at the White House, not the Senate race.

Well, that’s certainly one interpretation, but the key was the convention.  Had Bennett prepared for a floor fight in 2010, he might have made it to the primary.  And had he made it to the primary, Bennett almost certainly would have beaten Lee for the nomination and cruised to another term.  Polling at the time showed Bennett in relatively good shape even in the anti-incumbent mood of the national electorate.  The only way that the Tea Party could beat Bennett is by out-organizing him at the convention.

Hatch learned the lesson from 2010.  The Tea Party went after Hatch hard; FreedomWorks made unseating him one of its biggest projects this year.  Hatch began emphasizing the most conservative parts of his record to counter the Tea Party challenge, but more to the point, began organizing a big ground game to be sure he could beat the Tea Party at the convention.  He just missed beating Tea Party favorite Dan Liljenquist by the necessary 60% of the ballots to avoid the primary altogether.

Not that it makes much difference, as polling shows today.  Hatch is poised to win by a mile today:

Sen. Orrin Hatch has a significant lead over his opponent in Tuesday’s GOP primary, former state lawmaker Dan Liljenquist, according to a new Deseret News/KSL-TV poll.

Sixty percent of the registered voters in Utah polled who said they will vote in the Republican primary backed Hatch’s bid for a seventh term in the U.S. Senate. Just under one-third of the respondents, 32 percent, said they supported Liljenquist.

The poll, conducted June 15-21 by Dan Jones & Associates, has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.6 percent.

Hatch also beat Liljenquist in fundraising:

But while Hatch reported raising more than $10 million since he last appeared on the ballot in 2006, recent Federal Election Commission filings show Liljenquist personally contributed about half of the nearly $800,000 raised by his campaign.

Liljenquist and Freedomworks tried eroding Hatch’s standing by criticizing him for only taking part in one debate after the convention.  Liljenquist even staged a “debate” with a cardboard cutout of Hatch in an attempt to embarrass his opponent into engaging.  Clearly, Utahns weren’t impressed.  That doesn’t mean that Tea Party activists were any less passionate in 2012 than in 2010 — it just means that Hatch outfoxed them.


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