(CNN) - Utah Republicans forced Orrin Hatch into a June primary for the U.S. Senate seat he has held since 1976 as Hatch fell short of winning the party’s nomination for a seventh term Saturday.
Hatch came within 42 votes of winning the nomination outright at the state’s GOP convention, but ultimately missed the 60% support needed to avoid a primary. He will face former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist, one of nine challengers who tried to oust him, on June 26.
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Hatch’s history of reaching across the aisle to work with Democrats does not sit well with many tea party activists and other conservatives. But those constituencies may take more favorably his leading the Senate GOP push for a balanced budget amendment and co-sponsoring a Republican amendment to repeal President Barack Obama's health care law.
Hatch won the support of 59.19% of the 4,000 delegates in the second round of voting, with Liljenquist claiming 40.81%. The remaining eight challengers were eliminated on the first ballot, when Hatch won 57% of the vote, Liljenquist 28%, and state Rep. Chris Herrod just over 10% - a threshold reached by no other candidate.
Hatch has spent millions in the last year against the challengers and outside groups seeking his ouster. He went into the weekend with some polls, including internal surveys released by his campaign, split as to whether a primary would take place.
At the 2010 GOP convention, the state’s boiling tea party movement - largely fueled by the passing of the sweeping health care legislation – swept aside longtime Utah Sen. Bob Bennett when he finished third and the top two candidates faced off in a primary. Mike Lee won the November election for the seat.
In a short speech to the convention – each candidate was allowed six minutes to speak or show a video presentation – Hatch touted his seniority, arguing it would land him a powerful committee chairmanship and has given him expertise with navigating the nation’s upper legislative house.
“Not anyone else in this race can say the same, not if he’s telling the truth,” Hatch said.
But Liljenquist told delegates, “Your vote today has nothing to do with the words ‘chairman’ or ‘seniority.’ ”
“It has everything to do with the experience… and background to turn things around,” he said.
Several candidates touted their willingness to work with likely GOP nominee Mitt Romney, should he be elected president, but Hatch’s presentation opened with a video of Mitt Romney urging delegates to vote for “my friend, Orrin Hatch.”
Romney has a reserve of goodwill in the state where many share his Mormon faith, and which saw him turn around the 2002 Olympic games held in Salt Lake City.
A Salt Lake Tribune survey released Thursday shows that 62% of Republican voters in Utah back Hatch as the Senate nominee, with 20% favoring Liljenquist, 6% supporting Herrod, and 12% unsure. The poll did not ask about seven other lesser-known candidates.
Internal polling of convention delegates released by the Hatch campaign showed him above the 60% mark. Surveys conducted by some other organizations showed him falling short of the threshold.
In a statement after his win, Hatch said he is "prepared for the primary election ahead."
“Today was a good win for me, and for my campaign. We have come a long way in a short period of time," he said. “I am prepared and energized for the battle ahead. I have had the wonderful opportunity to travel our state from corner to corner, talking to voters, and discussing the issues of great importance to Utahns – and I will continue to work hard to ensure that my message is heard loud and clear."
Liljenquist told supporters in a Saturday evening fundraising email, "I promise to go to Washington and promote fiscal conservatism so that we can get our country and our economy back on track."
Among other influences in the race, the conservative and tea party-aligned group FreedomWorks is seeking to unseat Hatch, as it and allies did in Bennett’s 2010 bid. The national political director of FreedomWorks said in a statement after Saturday's vote that Hatch "had 36 years to get his act together, but continues to put power over policy."
“Dan Liljenquist is a rock solid conservative who will uphold the Constitution and stand by Senator Mike Lee in Washington to get America’s spending problem under control," Russ Walker said.
But groups aligned with Hatch, including the National Rifle Association and the super PAC Freedom Path, spent more than FreedomWorks in the lead up to Utah’s March local caucuses.