For all the talk of Sen. Orrin G. Hatch’s political vulnerability, the veteran Utah Republican had managed to deflect all serious challengers until Wednesday, when state Sen. Dan Liljenquist entered the primary race.
Mr. Liljenquist immediately positioned himself for a run to the right of Mr. Hatch, who is seeking his seventh term but has fallen out of favor with some conservatives for what they see as his record of voting to expand government.
“Washington, D.C., is broken and some of our own Republican lawmakers share in the blame,” Mr. Liljenquist said Wednesday in a statement. “It’s time for new conservative ideas from those who have the energy to see them through.”
In his short legislative career, Mr. Liljenquist took on entitlement reform as his central issue. He won national kudos for his efforts to reform the state’s pension and Medicaid programs - FreedomWorks gave him its Legislative Entrepreneur of the Year Award for reforms that “serve as a model for states across the country.”
His campaign theme, “It’s time,” is a not-so-veiled reference to the 77-year-old Mr. Hatch’s lengthy tenure in office. Seeking his seventh term, Mr. Hatch began serving in the Senate when Mr. Liljenquist, 37, was 1 year old.
The Hatch campaign was quick to point out that with age comes experience. A relative political newcomer, Mr. Liljenquist was elected to his first term in the state legislature in 2008. He resigned in December, prompting speculation that he would launch a U.S. Senate bid.
“It is perplexing to me why a state Senator who hasn’t even finished his first term of service in the state and running on the platform of entitlement reform would want to challenge Senator Hatch,” Hatch campaign manager David Hansen said in a statement.
“Senator Hatch will be in the best position as Chair of the Senate Finance Committee, to ensure these critical reforms happen and will be instrumental in getting our nation’s fiscal house in order,” Mr. Hansen said. “Dan Liljenquist’s mantra on entitlement reforms would be little more than a flimsy campaign promise made by someone who would be positioned on a committee that has no influence over fiscal policy.”
Mr. Hatch was seen as among the Senate’s most vulnerable incumbents after his fellow Utah Republican, Sen. Robert F. Bennett, was ousted in 2010 by Republican Mike Lee. The rap on Mr. Bennett was that he had become too moderate for Utah, and the state’s unique convention system allowed conservatives to defeat the incumbent without a statewide primary.
Since then, Mr. Hatch has taken nothing for granted, reaching out to tea party groups in an effort to shore up his support and amassing a $4 million war chest. His vigorous early campaigning appeared to stave off potential challenges from Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz and Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson, who both opted to run for re-election instead of taking on Mr. Hatch.
Mr. Liljenquist is expected to benefit from the backing of FreedomWorks and other tea party groups. Despite his brief political resume, political analysts see him as a legitimate challenger for the seat.
“Dan Liljenquist is extra bright, energetic, very articulate and very knowledgeable about health care and other issues,” said Salt Lake City pollster Dan Jones. “But Orrin Hatch will be very difficult to defeat.”
Under Utah’s nominating system, about 3,500 delegates cast votes for their Senate nominee at the party convention in April. A candidate must receive 60 percent of the vote to win the nomination; otherwise, the top two candidates face off in a primary election.
The Republican delegates tend to be conservative activists, and the system tends to favor the most conservative candidates. In 2010, Mr. Bennett came in third in delegate voting behind two more conservative challengers, with Mr. Lee going on to win the primary and the general election.
Mr. Liljenquist’s best shot at the nomination would be to capture at least 60 percent of the delegate vote. If the race goes to a primary, Mr. Hatch would benefit from his widespread name recognition and funding advantage.
In Mr. Liljenquist’s corner is his compelling personal story. In 2007, after winning the Republican primary, he was flying to Guatemala on a humanitarian mission when his plane crashed in a farm field, killing 11 of the 14 people onboard.
The experience made him determined to use his life to accomplish as much as possible. “He was vividly reminded that life is short and he did not have time to waste,” according to his campaign website.
© Copyright 2013 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.
Valerie Richardson covers politics and the West from Denver. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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