To the surprise of very few, Sen. Orrin Hatch secured his seventh term tonight by winning the Republican primary over insurgent and former State Sen. Dan Liljenquist by 67 to 33 percent. The bigger political story about Hatch, however, may yet to be written: should the 77-year-old Hatch win his expected easy re-election in November and Republicans pick up the four seats needed to turn their 47-seat minority into a majority in the Senate, the Utahan will almost surely be chosen president pro tem of the Senate — third in line to the presidency of the United States.
The position of president pro tem is historically given to the senator in the majority party who is most senior. Democrat Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, now in his 50th year as senator, presently holds the office. With Sen. Richard Lugar (who entered the Senate with Hatch in 1976) defeated for renomination and not returning, Hatch will be the senior Republican and in line for the senate presidency — assuming that Republicans take control of the Senate, of course.
Liljenquist — at 38, born two years before Hatch first entered the Senate — has been strapped for cash and support after just barely winning the percentage of delegates at the state convention that permitted him to pursue a primary. He never secured the financial backing from groups such as the Club for Growth that had been critical to finishing off the Beehive State???s other GOP Sen. Robert Bennett in 2010. Three-termer Bennett lost renomination to current Sen. Mike Lee.
With the exception of the FreedomWorks group loosely tied to the tea party movement, most national conservative groups were happy with Hatch???s overall record. As Hatch campaign manager Dave Hansen predicted to Human Events, ???the senator???s support of the Balanced Budget Amendment and opposition to many Obama judicial appointments resonated with many of the groups our opponent needed so desperately. In the end, it was us against FreedomWorks.???
Presidential politics play a supporting role in this race. Mitt Romney strongly backed old friend Hatch, while Rick Santorum endorsed Liljenquist. Many Pennsylvania conservatives found it strange that their former senator would find Hatch not conservative enough to support only eight years after Santorum deemed Pennsylvania???s then-Republican Sen. — and liberal — Arlen Specter sufficiently conservative to support (and help win a close contest against then-Rep. and stalwart conservative Pat Toomey).
Many people likened Hatch???s race, which he vowed would be his last, to that of the Frank Skeffington, the big-city New England Mayor in Edwin O???Connor???s The Last Hurrah who runs one time too many and loses. In Utah, this is in all likelihood ???the last hurrah??? — only Skeffington won.