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After weeks of bitter sparring, attorney Mike Lee won a hard-fought victory over businessman Tim Bridgewater, clinching the Republican nomination and likely a spot as Utah's next U.S. Senator.
Lee led Bridgewater 51 percent to 49 percent with 97 percent of the precincts reporting.
"We had an army of hard-fighting, hard-campaigning volunteers and they just refused to quit because they believed in our message," Lee said late Tuesday.
Hundreds of Lee's followers who gathered in South Jordan cheered loudly throughout the night as returns filtered in.
At Bridgewater headquarters, supporters cheered as their candidate whittled into Lee's early lead. He cut the margin to fewer than 1,100 votes before the numbers started to swing and the margin widened to several thousand votes.
At 11 p.m., Bridgewater called Lee to concede the race.
"We were hopeful we were going to win tonight but it looks like were not going to pull it out," said Bridgewater, who ran for Congress in 2002 and 2004 and lost in the Republican primary both times. "I feel like our team worked hard. We ran an honorable campaign and I can hold my head high. We fought passionately for this county."
Lee, speaking to a crowd chanting, "We like Mike," called his victory a "peaceful revolution"
"It is different than any election year any of us have ever seen in our lifetime," he said. "It is different because people are taking the power back."
Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele lauded the winning campaign.
"Mike Lee is a true limited-government conservative who will fix Washington by working to rein in out-of-control spending, reduce our $13 trillion national debt, and lower the tax burden for families and small businesses," he said. "I am absolutely confident Mike Lee will be the next Senator from Utah and the Republican Party looks forward to his leadership in the Senate."
Both campaigns claimed to be confident heading into primary election day, but neither was letting up, as potential voters were bombarded with late-game radio ads and a dizzying number of automated get-out-the-vote phone calls.
"We were on the phones right up to 8 p.m. and we were finding a lot of people who hadn't gotten out to vote yet," Lee said.
Despite the efforts, turnout was low across the state. Mark Thomas, office administrator of the Utah Lieutenant Governor's office, said turnout statewide was 14.5 percent. In Salt Lake County, turnout was higher and could reach 18 percent, according to Jason Yocom, director of the elections division, although there was no way to know how many of those were voting in the Senate race versus the Democratic primary.
As expected, Lee performed well in Utah County and beat Bridgewater soundly in Washington County. Bridgewater's campaign had hoped to erase that difference with a strong showing in Salt Lake County, but the votes never materialized, and he was able to carve just 2,000 votes out of Lee's lead.
Lee will be a heavy favorite against Democratic businessman Sam Granato in the November election. Utah has not elected a Democratic senator since 1970.
The primary victory marks a crusade for Lee that started a year ago, as the conservative attorney and constitutional scholar launched a speaking tour around the state, speaking on the original intent of the U.S. Constitution.
He formally joined the race in January, one of a handful of candidates seeking to capitalize on vocal and passionate conservative opposition to Sen. Bob Bennett. Fueled by a healthy dose of Tea Party anger, Republican delegates bounced Bennett at the Utah Republican Convention in May. It was the first time since 1940 that an incumbent senator from Utah has failed to get his party's nomination.
Bridgewater emerged victorious from the state convention, receiving 57 percent of the support of delegates to Lee's 42 percent.
Lee benefited from the backing of several out-of-state groups, most notably South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint's Senate Conservatives Fund, which pumped nearly $200,000 into Lee's election bid.
Bridgewater got the backing of most of the other Republican Senate contenders, including endorsements from Bennett and conservative activist Cherilyn Eagar.
Lee had served as general counsel to former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., clerked for Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito and more recently had represented several corporate interests, including the radioactive waste disposal company EnergySolutions.
Bridgewater ran as the raspy voice of the businessman. He is a consultant in an alternative-energy company, helps run a treatment program for troubled teens and helped found a consulting company designed to help businesses secure federal grants for energy and other types of development.
Lee attacked Bridgewater's reliance on federal funds for his business, subsidies he said he would eliminate if he was elected. He also accused Bridgewater of supporting No Child Left Behind and the Medicare Prescription Drug program when he ran for Congress.
Bridgewater fired back at Lee's ties to EnergySolutions and the company's plan to import waste from overseas and his supporters made allegations that Lee or EnergySolutions got radio talk show host Bob Lonsberry fired for supporting Bridgewater.
Lee said that, for the most part, he felt good about the tone of the campaign.
"There has been some contrast and contrast is sometimes important to show the differences between the candidates," Lee said.
Speaking to his supporters Tuesday night, Bridgewater encouraged them to unite behind Lee.
"I want to encourage you to stay involved to make a difference," he said.
Matthew LaPlante and Judy Fahys contributed to this story.