Orrin Hatch fails to clinch GOP nomination in Utah -- by 0.9%

Weird rule out there: The delegates to the Utah GOP convention get first crack at choosing a nominee by voting on the candidates. If anyone gets 60 percent, he’s nominated. If no one gets 60 percent, the top two finishers go to a statewide primary. That’s how Bob Bennett was sunk two years ago, you might remember. Tea partiers filled the ranks of convention delegates and ensured that he couldn’t place higher than third; Mike Lee and Tim Bridgewater went on to the primary and you know how that turned out.

Hatch’s goal today was simple. To make sure that he’d at least make it out of the convention, he’s been working the delegate process for months — and has been so successful at it that, as of 10 days ago, an internal poll concluded that he had a very real chance of clinching the nomination by taking 60 percent. If he could pull that off, he’d avoid a primary and snuff any chance of a belated tea-party awakening on his challenger’s behalf. As of 2:30 p.m. ET, the votes are in. Hatch’s take: 59.1 percent. More from Dave Weigel:

The Tea Party movement is alive in Utah. With representatives from FreedomWorks in the audience, delegates at the Utah Republican Convention managed to force Sen. Orrin Hatch into a June 26 primary. He got 59.2 percent of their votes against Dan Liljenquist, a 38-year-old state senator. Hatch needed 60 percent to avoid the primary. He couldn’t do it. In two rounds of voting, he went from 2,243 votes to 2,313 votes. If he’d gotten 32 more votes, he would have wrapped this up

FreedomWorks and other Tea Party groups now have two Causes to distract them from their failure to replace Mitt Romney with some better candidate — the Senate races in Utah and Indiana.

Yeah, the last point is key. 59.1 percent sounds hopeless for Liljenquist if it’s an accurate reflection of Republican voters in Utah, but there’s bound to be a burst of tea-party enthusiasm for him now that he and Richard Mourdock are the last best chance to tilt the GOP further right at the federal level. Hatch did himself no favors either when he said this recently of his opponents on the right, FreedomWorks:

“These people are not conservatives. They’re not Republicans,” Hatch angrily responds. “They’re radical libertarians and I’m doggone offended by it.”

Then Hatch, a former boxer, turns combative. “I despise these people, and I’m not the guy you come in and dump on without getting punched in the mouth.”

Go read FreedomWorks VP Matt Kibbe for a response to that. If tea partiers didn’t have enough incentive already to pay attention to this race, they do now. There’s also some reason to believe that today’s delegates were actually more pro-Hatch than the general electorate: He and his team shrewdly maneuvered behind the scenes before the convention to make sure his people were well represented on the floor.

More than a year ago, Hatch’s campaign polled the 3,500 Republican delegates who voted Bennett out of office in May 2010.

Its discovery: Hatch had no chance of getting renominated, if those same 3,500 people voted.

“This is not going to be a campaign of persuading delegates,” Hatch’s campaign manager, Dave Hansen, said Thursday, recalling a conversation with the senator early last year. “This is going to be a campaign of replacing delegates.”

To survive, Hatch needed new delegates. The first step was to recruit supporters willing to run in the 2,000 precincts that select this year’s 4,000 delegates to Saturday’s convention. Then he had to round up supporters willing to attend caucus night to vote for the Hatch-backed delegates. The initial goal of getting 20,000 supporters out on a cold Thursday night was eventually upped to 35,000. The campaign staff of 25 used every possible list to speak with potential backers.

As recently as two months ago, Mike Lee’s chief of staff thought Hatch was destined to lose; instead he came within a hair’s breadth of winning without a primary. Give him credit for knowing the rules of the game and playing it well. And in fact, despite celebrations this afternoon by proud tea partiers like the boss emeritus about having forced him into a primary, Hatch is still in very good shape. According to Roll Call, he has a $3 million advantage over Liljenquist in cash on hand and, as you’ll see below, he also has the full support of the first Mormon presidential nominee in U.S. history. That can’t hurt in a state with the largest number of Mormon voters in America. Gonna be a mighty heavy lift to oust him.

In case you’re wondering, Hatch and Dick Lugar, who’s also seeking another six-year term, have spent a combined 70 years in the Senate. Exit question from Ace’s co-blogger rdbrewer: Did Hatch’s comments about despising “radical libertarians” alienate just enough delegates to prevent him from wrapping this thing up today?

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