SANDY, Utah--By a hair, Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch was narrowly pushed into a Republican primary race against former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist Saturday after failing to capture the 60 percent necessary to win the nomination outright.
Hatch received 59.19 percent on a second-round ballot vote against Liljenquist, who received 40.81 percent. The Hatch campaign confirmed to Yahoo News they believe they were 32 votes shy of 60 percent (official numbers have yet to be released.)
"There will be a primary election," state party chairman Thomas Wright told the delegates gathered here at the South Towne Exposition Center for Saturday's convention.
Hatch told reporters following the final vote that he was "elated" by the results and "frankly" did not think he would win 60 percent. "It would have been nice if we could have gotten 60 percent... but I consider this a tremendous win," the 36-year senate veteran said.
Hatch once again denigrated the "outside groups" that have been involved in this race. (FreedomWorks, which is backing Liljenquist, has invested significantly in an opposition effort to Hatch.) "They're just vicious and awful and they don't tell the truth. And that's been really hard for me to take," Hatch said.
Liljenquist told reporters he was thrilled with the results and is in the race for the long haul despite being the underdog. "We like our chances going into a primary," he said. "We knew the moment we filed that we were going up against a man who has perfect 100 percent name recognition. We were going up with a man who has millions and millions of dollars in outside out-of-state contributions to his campaign."
Liljenquist argued that his campaign will be buoyed by in-state support and in-state funds.
Hatch on Saturday received 57 percent support in the first round of voting against nine opponents. The vote totals pushed Liljenquist and Hatch into a final, second round.
Liljenquist downplayed his odds in the days leading up to Saturday's convention, talking to Yahoo News about holding Hatch to a June 26 primary instead of knocking him out of the running completely, as tea party-affiliated Republicans in Utah did to Hatch's former Senate colleague Robert Bennett in 2010.
Liljenquist once again Saturday argued Hatch's seniority argument doesn't hold up. "No one senator is too big to fail," Liljenquist told delegates in his speech prior to the first vote. "No one senator is too important to lose."
The senator on the campaign trail has been promoting his potential ascension to the chairmanship of the Senate Finance Committee if Republicans win a majority in the Senate this November, something he emphasized in his last pitch to delegates gathered here Saturday.
"I'm not impressed by the title and neither should you be," Hatch said prior to the first round of voting. "But believe me when I say that a strong and experienced chairman can make all the difference in the world," he added to cheers from the audience.
Liljenquist has been arguing that Republicans are unlikely to win a majority in the Senate, therefore making Hatch's chairmanship moot.
When asked Saturday by Yahoo News to respond to that assertion, Hatch issued some strong words for his opponent. "Any Republican that says that, I'd like to, I'd like to, I'd like to dress down," Hatch said. "Because I can name nine Democratic senate seats that are in jeopardy... we're going to win. And like I say, let's say we don't and Obama gets re-elected, you'd better have this tough, old bird there."
Update 3:08 p.m. MT: Story updated to include the Hatch's campaign's estimate that the senator was 32 votes shy of 60 percent.
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