Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) calls on the president to kick start a dormant U.S. trade agenda in Washington on Sept. 7. The six-term senator enters the state Republican convention Saturday as the heavy favorite with the real possibility of securing enough support to win the Senate nomination outright, forgoing the need for a statewide primary. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Two years ago, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch looked like a sure goner. Tea party conservatives were after him and it was only a matter of time before they got him.

But the six-term Republican from Utah enters the state Republican convention Saturday as the heavy favorite with the real possibility of securing enough support to win the Senate nomination outright, forgoing the need for a statewide primary. His standing is a clear triumph over the insurgent, tea party element of the GOP, both in Utah and nationally, and it has served notice that the establishment can fight back.

Seeking his seventh term — which, if completed in 2018, would make him the second-
longest serving Republican
in Senate history — Hatch’s hard-fought campaign for survival upended the notion that the tea party had become the dominant force in the Republican Party and proved that even in today’s environment, old-fashioned political guile and determination can sometimes trump the rebellious energy of a grass-roots insur­gency.

Some critics think that Hatch, 78 — never one to be mistaken for a moderate — has moved his policy positions and his political rhetoric so far to the right to appease the most conservative activists in Utah that his victory would in fact be a win for the tea party. But even that, it appears, would not have been enough.

In the past two election cycles, conservative activists in Utah have ousted veteran Republican incumbents at their GOP conventions for not being conservative enough, or for being too willing to compromise on key issues. Two years ago, Sen. Robert F. Bennett, a three-term senator from a political dynasty dating to the 1950s, finished a dismal third — defeated by chants of “TARP, TARP” because of his support for the $700 billion financial bailout in 2008.

With little support from elected state leaders and an outside group pouring more than $750,000 into his defeat, Hatch seemed ripe for the taking, following the 2010 defeat of GOP establishment figures in Utah, Nevada, Delaware, Colorado and Alaska. In a widely circulated interview with Politico two months ago, the chief of staff for Republican Sen. Mike Lee, Bennett’s successor, boldly predicted Hatch’s defeat at the convention and suggested that he retire so he could “go out on top and be regarded as the statesman.”

Hatch, who has spent decades fashioning grand compromises with the likes of the late Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), had a different game plan.

While Bennett and former representative Chris Cannon — defeated at the 2008 GOP convention by Rep. Jason Chaffetz — bemoaned the state’s arcane rules for nominating candidates, Hatch used them to his advantage. “He worked hard and spent a lot of money,” Chaffetz, 45, who considered challenging the senator, said with grudging respect. “He’s just parked himself in Utah.”

More than a year ago, Hatch’s campaign polled the 3,500 Republican delegates who voted Bennett out of office in May 2010.

Its discovery: Hatch had no chance of getting renominated, if those same 3,500 people voted.

“This is not going to be a campaign of persuading delegates,” Hatch’s campaign manager, Dave Hansen, said Thursday, recalling a conversation with the senator early last year. “This is going to be a campaign of replacing delegates.”

Utah’s strange political system means that a few thousand delegates vote at party conventions, and those delegates tend to be the most ardent party activists. The top two vote-getters move on to a statewide primary, unless someone gets 60 percent or more support, in which case the nomination goes to that candidate.

To survive, Hatch needed new delegates. The first step was to recruit supporters willing to run in the 2,000 precincts that select this year’s 4,000 delegates to Saturday’s convention. Then he had to round up supporters willing to attend caucus night to vote for the Hatch-backed delegates. The initial goal of getting 20,000 supporters out on a cold Thursday night was eventually upped to 35,000. The campaign staff of 25 used every possible list to speak with potential backers.

Hansen never released the full details of that initial poll of 2010 delegates, but in an interview Thursday he acknowledged that the results “mirrored basically where Bennett was” when he was defeated. In that climate two years ago, it’s not clear Hatch could have prevailed even with the massive effort he used the past few months. “It would have been very, very difficult,” Hansen said.

Unlike the Bennett campaign, which never caught a break, Hatch’s effort kept getting lucky. For example, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sent its usual letter to Mormon churches urging its faithful to attend the party caucuses, but this time church leaders encouraged that the letter to be read to congregations multiple times. Then, Mormon leaders canceled church activities for the caucus nights of March 13 (Democrats) and March 15 (Republicans). In addition, most Utah Republicans had come to view former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney not just as a favorite son who ran the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, he had become the likely next president in their eyes, the first Mormon to do so.

Romney made an ad supporting Hatch, who is also a Mormon, that ran repeatedly in the three weeks leading up to the caucus. Touting Hatch’s possible chairmanship of the Finance Committee if Republicans win the Senate majority, Romney told voters to “keep Orrin fighting for Utah.”

This helped propel a blockbuster turnout. Without even a presidential contest on the ballot, almost 130,000 people attended the caucuses, more than twice as many as in 2010, which was the previous record.

FreedomWorks, the Washington-based organization founded by former House majority leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.), ran an overly aggressive campaign against Hatch, causing a backlash of support. “It was overkill,” said Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), who has also remained neutral in the Hatch race. “They created sympathy for Hatch.”

The results speak for themselves: Only 20 percent of those voting on Saturday were delegates at the tea-party-infused 2010 convention. Public and private polling suggest that Hatch is almost certain to receive the most votes Saturday. The only real issue is whether he tops 60 percent. “I think he easily comes out of the convention and he has an outside chance of winning altogether,” Bishop predicted.

If he is forced into a primary, he will face either former state senator Dan Liljenquist or state Rep. Chris Herrod on June 26. Hatch will be the heavy favorite because a larger electorate will cast votes and his financial edge will be significant.

Said Hansen, “The odds are, we’ll probably go to a primary, and if we do, we’re ready for it.”

Two years ago, 21 percent of the delegates refused to identify with the Republican Party because they were still angry about the Bush-era bailouts — which Hatch supported — and the surge in spending during GOP rule of Congress. This year, fewer than 6 percent of delegates refuse to identify with Republicans, according to Hatch’s polling.

“If you don’t like the way people are voting,” Hansen said of Utah’s rules, “you get to replace them.”