Five times Sen. Orrin Hatch has been re-elected without a serious threat, but an anti-Washington fervor and a young candidate calling for change may present the toughest challenge yet for the state's longest-serving U.S. senator.
Dan Liljenquist, who recently resigned as a state senator from Bountiful, announced his bid to knock off Hatch on Wednesday, saying it is time for a change in Washington. He's ready to take on the iconic Hatch and the millions of dollars in his campaign account.
"I just think the people of the state of Utah … they can't be bought. Elections are about the future," Liljenquist said. "I appreciate Senator Hatch. I appreciate his service. But it's time."
It's a message that echoes Hatch's own words when he unseated three-term Sen. Frank Moss with an anti-incumbency, take-back-Washington message. Liljenquist, 37, was a toddler at the time.
"I can remember a 41-year-old Orrin Hatch in 1976 who filed an hour before the deadline … who had never run for public office before and challenged an 18-year incumbent Senator Moss," said University of Utah political science professor Tim Chambless. "I can see Liljenquist doing much the same thing."
But Hatch is not going quietly into the night. He has been working tirelessly reaching out to discontented delegates. He has about two dozen paid staffers and has more than $4 million in the bank for his re-election campaign.
"We've been doing this for months. Nobody will have held as many town hall meetings and delegate meetings as we have," said Hatch's campaign manager, Dave Hansen. "This has not been a two-month campaign he's been trying to run."
In 2010, three-term Sen. Bob Bennett was ousted by on outpouring of disgruntled conservative voters, upset with Bennett's support for the bank bailout and other votes, presenting a clear warning sign to Hatch.
If Bennett and Hatch are both ousted, Utah's senators would go from among the most senior delegation to the most junior. The combined age of Liljenquist and Sen. Mike Lee is 77 the same age as Hatch.
Hansen argues that it would be a mistake for Utah voters to abandon Hatch's seniority, particularly if they're interested in getting federal spending under control. Hatch is in line to become chairman of the Senate Finance Committee if Republicans retake the Senate.
"The senator in that position, bringing Utah solutions to those problems," Hansen said, "is going to have a lot more influence than a person on the bottom of the list, No. 100 out of 100 senators in terms of experience and ability to make things happen."
Liljenquist doesn't buy the seniority argument.
"He's been [in the Senate] for 36 years and he's been on the Finance Committee for 18 years and while he's been on the Finance Committee he's exacerbated those problems," Liljenquist said.
Specifically, he points to Hatch's support for the Medicare prescription drug benefit for seniors and his failure to stop the expanded federal control of health care.
"I've been waiting for Orrin Hatch to lead on these issues and he hasn't led," Liljenquist said.
State Rep. Chris Herrod, R-Provo, said he will announce Friday whether he will run for the Senate, as well. He is scheduled to participate in a Senate debate on Saturday. Liljenquist and talk radio host Tim Aalders are also scheduled to take part; Hatch will not.
Pete Ashdown, who owns the Internet service provider XMission and lost to Hatch in 2006, is the only Democrat in the race thus far.
A poll in July by Public Policy Polling showed Hatch holding his own 45 percent to 44 percent among Republican voters when he was pitted against a generic Republican with more conservative views. But he struggled among the most conservative Republicans, 51 percent of whom believed he was too liberal. Delegates to the state convention tend to be more conservative.
However, Hansen said Liljenquist isn't more conservative than Hatch, even if he tries to present himself as such to win support from D.C.-based conservative groups.
"What Dan is trying to do right now is make himself accessible to FreedomWorks in hopes that out-of-state group … will provide him the funds he needs for the campaign," Hansen said. "But his voting record was certainly not one of the more conservative voting records in the Legislature."
Adam Brown, a political science professor at Brigham Young University, tracks the voting record of state lawmakers. In 2009 Liljenquist was the 17th-most conservative senator, and in 2010, the 19th-most conservative. In 2011, he had the 7th-most-conservative voting record in the Senate, according to Brown's rankings.
The conservative group Utah Grass Roots, which ranks legislators' voting records annually, gave Liljenquist a lifetime score of 63 percent. The business-backed Utah Taxpayer Association gave Liljenquist a rating of 92 percent last session and 67 percent during the 2010 session.
Hansen said Liljenquist hardly ever voted against legislation and skipped tough votes, like a package of controversial immigration bills.
Liljenquist was elected to the Bountiful Senate district in 2008 and led efforts to reform the state's pension system and Utah's Medicaid system, which provides health coverage to low-income individuals.
He is a graduate of the University of Chicago Law School and was a consultant with Bain and Company. He joined Focus Service, a Utah-based call center and sold his interest in the company last year. He now works for a consultant on pension reform.
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