DAVID GREENE, HOST:
As we mentioned, this big Supreme Court decision is coming in the middle of an election year, and this Tuesday is an important milestone. The Utah primary that day will mark the end of presidential primary voting on the Republican side. Mitt Romney has of course already wrapped up his party's nomination.
Utah Republicans will also be deciding if their longtime senator, Orrin Hatch, will vie for a seventh term in the U.S. Senate. Hatch is trying to keep his job in an atmosphere that has not been very friendly to incumbents. Hatch's colleague Richard Lugar recently lost his primary fight in Indiana.
From member station KUER in Salt Lake City, Terry Gildea reports.
TERRY GILDEA, BYLINE: The Tea Party revolution swept through Utah in 2010, when conservative favorite Mike Lee ousted three-term Republican senator Bob Bennett at the state party convention. Perhaps the person watching the upset closet that day was Utah's longest serving senator, Orrin Hatch. At age 78, Hatch faces his toughest challenger yet in former State Senator Dan Liljenquist.
STATE SENATOR DAN LILJENQUIST: Since 2005, there have been 49 new senators elected and there are 10 more retiring this year. There is a youth movement in the Senate and it is happening right now. These are the new generation of leaders we desperately need and I want to be there with them.
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GILDEA: That was Liljenquist at the state party convention in April. He was just 2 years old when Hatch was first elected to the Senate in 1976. Hatch came to the convention ready to fend off Liljenquist's challenge with a powerful endorsement from his Republican ally Mitt Romney.
MITT ROMNEY: I'm asking you today to join me in supporting my friend, Senator Orrin Hatch...
GILDEA: Hatch asked GOP delegates to send him back to the Senate one final time.
SENATOR ORRIN HATCH: This is my last campaign but it's not the end. It will be my last six years in the U.S. Senate, but they'll be the best six years and the most critical six years of all.
GILDEA: In Utah, candidates need 60 percent of the delegate vote to avoid a primary. Hatch got 59 percent. And for the first time in his Senate career faces a closed Republican primary on Tuesday. In the months after the convention, Hatch has done what most incumbents do, limit his contact with his opponent. Liljenquist in turn called for eight debates. The two candidates finally met in one live radio debate broadcast on KSL NewsRadio in Salt Lake earlier this month.
Liljenquist tried to paint Hatch as a progressive Republican.
LILJENQUIST: You voted over and over to raise the debt ceiling. That is a tax increase that you've deferred on a whole generation of Americans.
HATCH: Well, let me get this straight. Apparently, I'm responsible for everything that's wrong in the federal government. That's total BS and everybody knows it.
GILDEA: Hatch has raised more than 12 times the campaign cash than Liljenquist. And organizations like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have put out ads like this one to tout Hatch's pro-business record.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: He fought the decision to block the Keystone pipeline. He's the consistent conservative leader we can count on to knock down barriers to energy exploration, crucial for our economic future.
GILDEA: Liljenquist's website is full of extended video ads attacking Hatch's voting record, including a series called Fiscal Child Abuse, where an older man explains the national debt to his granddaughter.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: He voted 16 different times to increase the national debt.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Sixteen times? Who told him he could spend my money like that? I sure didn't.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: And then I guess a lot of us did. He's been senator for 36 years.
GILDEA: But Liljenquist's conservative tactics may not be pulling in the voters he needs to win the primary. Kirk Jowers is executive director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah.
KIRK JOWERS: Liljenquist was always hoping to win this thing in convention. Or at least get rid of Hatch, as they were able to do with Bennett, because once you get to the primary, people know Hatch, they're used to him and Hatch has all the money. It made the numbers game almost impossible for Liljenquist.
GILDEA: On top of Hatch's name recognition, Liljenquist is also facing a steady decline in voter turnout. According to the non-partisan Utah Foundation, turnout in the state hit an all-time low of 50 percent in 2008. They released the results of a survey this month on issues that are prompting voters to stay home on Election Day.
Morgan Lyon Cotti is a researcher on the project.
MORGAN LYON COTTI: They listed partisan politics as one of the top issues. And this is not only interesting because it is a top issue, but because this is the fourth time we've done the survey and we've never even seen partisan politics brought up.
GILDEA: Hatch maintains he's worked across party lines to build consensus. In an interview with NPR, he made the case that he could rise to a very powerful position in the Senate if Republicans take back a majority.
HATCH: It isn't a desire to just hold on to this job. If I wasn't the Republican leader on the Finance Committee, about to become chairman of the Finance Committee with Mitt Romney as president, I probably wouldn't have run again. But I would feel like I let Utah down. I'd feel like I let my country down.
GILDEA: While Hatch got 59 percent of the vote at the state convention, he needs only a simple majority on Tuesday to move forward. Despite the math, Liljenquist will keep touting Tea Party values until the final votes are counted.
For NPR News, I'm Terry Gildea in Salt Lake City.
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GREENE: And you're listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.