Orrin Hatch Forced Into Primary Fight After Failing to Secure GOP Nomination

Utah Republicans denied U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch a clear path to a seventh and final term Saturday, forcing the 78-year-old lawmaker into a June primary with 37-year-old former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist.

Hatch fell short of the outright nomination by fewer than three dozen votes from the nearly 4,000 delegates at the party convention.

In a matter of weeks, Hatch turned the question of whether he would survive the convention into a question of whether he would reach the 60 percent threshold to earn the nomination.  Despite the setback, Hatch holds a significant fundraising edge in what has become the stiffest challenge since his election to the Senate in 1976.

“It is time for a new generation of leaders…We know it to our bones,” his competitor Dan Liljenquist remarked.

“No one senator is too big to fail…No one senator is too important to lose.”

Orrin Hatch Forced Into Primary Fight After Failing to Secure GOP Nomination

Dan Liljenquist, right, poses the greatest threat to Orrin Hatch

This year’s race essentially began in 2010, when former Utah Sen. Bob Bennett was ousted by delegates fueled by tea party politics.

Hatch reportedly remarked: “These people are not conservatives. They’re not Republicans…They’re radical libertarians and I’m doggone offended by it.”

“I despise these people, and I’m not the guy you come in and dump on without getting punched in the mouth,” he continued.

Immediately recognizing the challenge he would likely face from such groups, Hatch launched one of the most well-organized and expensive campaigns in the state’s history. Since the beginning of 2011, he has spent more than $5 million – and he still has $3 million to spend on a primary.

Hatch has also shifted his rhetoric to the right over the past two years to address the claims that he was not conservative enough (probably not a good strategy to admit you “despise” your constituents).

FreedomWorks has called the outcome “a historic upset,” describing Liljenquist as “an energetic, conservative underdog.”

“Utahns have spoken today, and their message is clear: it’s time for a change,” Russ Walker, national political director for FreedomWorks for America, declared.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.