Utah: Senate Race Still Kicking but 4th District Set for Premiere Battle

Nathan L. Gonzales April 25, 2012 · 2:14 PM EDT

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) is on quite a roller coaster ride. The senior senator went from the brink of electoral extinction to coming oh-so-close to securing the GOP nomination without even having to hassle with a primary. Now he’s back in a competitive race for reelection.

After seeing his colleague get ousted at the GOP convention two years ago, Hatch and his team were laser focused and determined not to fall victim to the same fate. On Saturday, Hatch received 59 percent of the GOP delegates, but just short of the 60 percent he needed to win renomination without a primary.

Hatch now faces former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist in the June 26 primary. Liljenquist is a very credible candidate, but it’s far from clear that he’ll get the support of outside conservative groups (such as the Club for Growth) that he will need in order to oust the incumbent. Hatch had $3.2 million in the bank on April 1 compared to just $242,000 for Liljenquist.

Right now, conservative groups are focused on defeating Sen. Richard Lugar in next month’s GOP primary in Indiana.

A Lugar loss could cut in one of two directions. Conservative allies could pivot to Utah and use the momentum against Hatch. Or, in what could be the more likely scenario, conservative groups may choose not to risk tarnishing a victory in Indiana with a loss in Utah. If Lugar wins his primary, it seems unlikely that conservative groups would shift to Hatch since Lugar is viewed as considerably more vulnerable.

Hatch holds the advantage, but the primary is still two months away and this race could still develop.

In the 2nd District, author/consultant/Air Force veteran Chris Stewart secured the GOP nomination on Saturday and will be a Member of Congress next year in the newly-created seat.

Meanwhile, the 4th District is shaping up to host one of the most competitive and exciting races in the entire country.

Saratoga Springs Mayor Mia Love won the GOP nomination at Saturday’s convention by earning 70 percent of the delegates. Love was certainly in the top tier of contenders but it’s a surprise that she won without a primary against two credible opponents, including one who had the support of Sen. Mike Lee (R) and the Club for Growth.

Love has an impressive profile and a story that will garner her national attention. Some Democratic strategists are skeptical that Utah will elect a black woman to office, but Love is likely to be an elusive target for Rep. Jim Matheson (D). She’s also young and conservative and is the kind of candidate that should attract Republican donors from across the country.

Matheson represents just about one-third of the newly-drawn district. And while he appears to be popular, the congressman will have to swim against an extremely strong tide at the top of the ballot. John McCain won the district 56 percent to 41 percent in 2008, but Mitt Romney is likely to do even better in November. And recent polling showed Gov. Gary Herbert’s (R) job approval ratings near 60 percent as he seeks reelection.

It’s true that Matheson survived the 2010 wave, but Republicans never invested heavily in defeating him, and Utah is one place where 2012 may not be much better for Democrats.