SALT LAKE CITY — Over the past two years, GOP primaries have ended the careers of several veteran Republican politicians who were backed by the party’s establishment. Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch is seeking to avoid the same fate in his first primary challenge since winning office in 1976.
Hatch’s race is the premier event as several states hold primaries Tuesday. Among them is New York, where 82-year-old Rep. Charlie Rangel is running for a 22nd term, the first time he’s faced voters since the House censured him 18 months ago for failing to pay all his taxes and for filing misleading financial disclosure statements.
Those issues, plus changed demographics in the Democrat’s redrawn Harlem district, could pose a re-election challenge for Rangel, who has also faced some health problems. But Rangel told CNN on Tuesday: “I got a clean bill of health. I’m fired up and ready to go.”
President Barack Obama declined to endorse Rangel in this election, having suggested in 2010 that the congressman might retire “with dignity.” White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters Tuesday: “I don’t think our position on that has changed.”
A few months ago, Hatch was considered vulnerable — like his former Republican colleague Robert Bennett, who was booted from the Senate two years ago at the Utah nominating convention, and like six-term Republican Sen. Richard Lugar, who lost in last month’s Indiana GOP primary.
But Hatch, 78, is now viewed as the heavy favorite in Tuesday’s matchup against former state Sen. Daniel Liljenquist. Hatch has enjoyed a huge resource advantage that let him unleash the most expensive and detailed campaign operation in Utah’s history. Hatch raised about $10 million, and that has allowed the campaign to contact thousands of voters individually and to spread two messages on the airways: He has the backing of GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, and his seniority on the Senate Finance Committee would benefit the state.
Liljenquist, 37, is a relative newcomer to the Utah political scene. He enjoyed recognition for leading efforts to overhaul the pension system for the state’s employees during his first term as a legislator. Instead of opting to rise through the state’s political ranks, he chose to take on the state’s best-known political figure.
Liljenquist has seized on voters’ concerns about the growing national debt and has tried to make the case that Hatch has been a major contributor to that debt by voting continually to raise the federal debt ceiling, supporting a Medicare drug benefit and working with the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy to establish the State Children’s Health Insurance Program.
Utah has a unique nominating system, and Hatch was widely viewed as most vulnerable when about 4,000 GOP stalwarts gathered at the state’s nominating convention in April. Delegates at the convention tend to be more conservative than the GOP electorate. The Hatch campaign team spent months behind the scenes trying to generate a new crop of delegates to the convention, and that work paid off, with the large majority of this year’s delegates being new to the process. In the end, Hatch won 59.2 percent of the delegates, just shy of the 60 percent he needed to avoid a runoff with Liljenquist.
The Hatch campaign includes many of the state’s top political consultants and strategists. It also hired some of the tea party activists who had helped generate Sen. Mike Lee’s win two years ago.
“It was an organizational effort beyond anything the state has seen before,” Hatch campaign manager Dave Hansen said. “Fortunately, we had the resources to pay the costs on that organizational effort.”
Much of the money fueling Hatch’s campaign came from corporations and trade groups that frequently have business before the Senate Finance Committee, which Hatch probably would chair if the GOP can win the Senate in November. Hansen said Hatch is not beholden to any particular group other than the residents of Utah.
Liljenquist’s camp said it has motivated supporters who are expected to head to the polls in a low-turnout election. Holly Richardson, a campaign spokeswoman, said that in recent years candidates such as Lee and Rep. Jason Chaffetz fared better than pre-election polls had said they would. She said the campaign was reaching out to voters who don’t normally participate in primaries.
The winner of the GOP primary will be the huge favorite to win the general election in November against Democratic candidate Scott Howell.
In New York, Rangel was fending off four challengers including state Sen. Adriano Espaillat and former Clinton White House official Clyde Williams in a newly drawn Manhattan and Bronx district that is now majority Hispanic. Espaillat, a native of the Dominican Republic, has strong support from the district’s large Dominican community, but Rangel is still widely popular in Harlem and has the support of labor unions and most of the state’s Democratic lawmakers. Andrew Cuomo, New York’s popular Democratic governor, endorsed Rangel last week.
Democrats also faced a potentially problematic upset in Brooklyn in the race to succeed retiring Democratic Rep. Ed Towns. Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries has been favored to win the race and has received the endorsement of most Democratic leaders but is facing strong competition from Charles Barron, a city councilman and former Black Panther known for making incendiary comments about Jews and gays. Barron last week received the endorsement of former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke.
Freking reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Beth Fouhy in New York and Anne Gearan in Washington contributed to this report.