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(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) Now that last year's election is done, the familar Sen. Orrin Hatch, known as a deal maker and pragmatist, has reappeared. During the campaign, he made a sharp pivot to the right to battle back a challenge from the tea party.
Once beleaguered Hatch now has upper hand

Politics » How Utah’s longest-serving senator went from playing catch-up to front-runner status.

First Published Apr 23 2012 04:22 pm • Last Updated Aug 05 2012 11:34 pm

It took no time at all for the cross hairs to shift from the abruptly ended political career of Sen. Bob Bennett to that of Utah’s longest-serving member of Congress.

But tea party Republicans have found it far more difficult to bring down Sen. Orrin Hatch, though he’s not out of electoral danger just yet.

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Two years removed from Bennett’s ouster at the hands of angry state delegates, Hatch left Utah’s GOP convention on Saturday in a position of power.

He came just 32 votes shy of claiming the nomination outright and now enters a two-month primary campaign as the clear favorite against former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist.

"We’re elated we did as well as we did," said Hatch, who is seeking a seventh term in office. "Just a couple months ago, people weren’t giving me much of a chance."

So what happened?

Here are six reasons for this political turnaround, starting with the most simple:

He recognized he was in trouble and responded.

Hatch started reaching out to disaffected Republicans even before Bennett lost, probably because his pollsters found the same thing The Salt Lake Tribune did in the days before the 2010 convention: 71 percent of the delegates wanted Hatch booted from office.

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The senator’s understated response: "Naturally, we’re concerned."

He had breezed through five re-election efforts, but he knew his sixth could be a disaster.

"If we had to face the same delegates in 2012 that were there in 2010, Senator Hatch would be toast," said David Hansen, his longtime campaign manager, who developed an unprecedented and expensive strategy that involved a staff of more than two dozen people nearly a year before any challenger actually entered the race.

This team contacted more than 100,000 Republicans around the state, identifying 5,000 people willing to go to their neighborhood caucus meetings and run to be state delegates. It cost more than $3 million.

Friendly organizations not only helped Hatch raise that money but also funded the state Republican Party’s campaign to boost caucus attendance.

Hatch also was helped when the LDS Church pressed its members to attend the caucuses.

All of the outreach worked. More than 120,000 Utahns attended the GOP caucus meetings, a massive increase from years past. As a result, seven out of every eight delegates were new.

"These elections to a certain extent are won or lost on caucus night," said Greg Hopkins, Bennett’s former campaign manager. "And Hatch had a big win on caucus night."

He made attempts to neutralize the tea party.

Hatch tried to recruit tea party notables to join his campaign. He had success with Evelyn Call, Michelle Scharf and Julian Babbitt but was rebuffed by others, none more prominent than David Kirkham.

The senator spent months building ties with Kirkham, who helped found and fund the Utah tea party, calling him regularly and asking for his advice on votes. He even invited Kirkham, a specialty car manufacturer, to testify before a Senate committee. But right after the hearing, Kirkham announced that he, like most of the Utah tea party, would oppose the senator.

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