More than a year ago, we profiled Dan Liljenquist, the man who pushed Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch into a June 26 primary by keeping the incumbent under 60 percent of the vote at this past weekend’s state party convention. With Liljenquist back in the news, we thought it was worth re-posting our profile. Here it is:
Entitlement reform is on the lips of every Republican politician these days, and that’s good news for Utah state Sen. Dan Liljenquist.
His party’s leadership picked the first-term legislator to reform the state pension system last year. The plan he came up with – along with the methodical way he crafted it – won accolades even from his political opponents. A year later he took on Medicaid reform, with similar results. Now, Liljenquist is preparing a likely primary campaign against Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) in 2012, in his short political career he has two solid achievements to run on.
In Utah’s political system, Republicans hold a nominating convention before the primaries. A candidate needs to get forty percent of the vote to make it to the primary. Hatch, after six terms in the Senate, could struggle given the likely focus on him by national conservative groups. Many think he’ll meet the same fate as Utah’s former junior senator, Bob Bennett, who lost to political newcomer Mike Lee at the party’s nominating convention in 2010. (Bennett actually finished third in the convention voting.)
Liljenquist has won kudos in some national circles already. The Wall Street Journal op-ed page called his reform a model for the country.
That said, his reform proposals were controversial even in this strongly Republican state. About 4,500 people protested at the state capitol during the pension debate. Many fear that his cuts to an already low-paying education system will keep good teachers from working in the state.
“He kind of jumped on the bandwagon of the ultra right-wing of union-busting, using the poor economic situation the country’s in to take out political opponents,” said Rob Miller, chair of the Davis County Democratic Party. “I believe he was taking advantage of the economic crisis in the country to move a political agenda.”
Yet most of those who disagree with Liljenquist’s reforms are hard-pressed to say something bad about Liljenquist the person. Many said they enjoyed working with him.
“He’s been great to work with this year, he spent countless hours with our association just addressing our concerns,” said Todd Sutton, the public relations coordinator for the Utah Public Employees' Association. “He really does listen, he listens to our issues.”
“I think he’s very intelligent and much more collaborative than a lot of the other Republicans are,” said state Sen. Pat Jones, a Democrat. “He has the willingness to really take complex issues and really carry them forward.”
Liljenquist has also stopped short of fully embracing the tea party movement that helped conservative underdogs oust sitting incumbents during 2010.
While Hatch has been aggressively courting these activists, Liljenquist says he thinks the “froth and bubble” will die down while concern about the economy will remain. “A lot of people who are on the front of a movement are very extreme in their views or say things that make the movement look crazy,” he said. “But the people I've met, regular people across the state are really concerned about the long-term health of this country.”
Some see Liljenquist’s flexibility more skeptically. “He’s easy to get along with, but he’s very much a politician too,” said Richard Watson, the Democrat who ran against Liljenquist in the state Senate race. “He’s not so much into the tea party stuff, but I’ve known Dan for two years. He will do almost anything to get elected.”
He says he wants to take the emotion out of some of these debates, yet Liljenquist’s political career has an emotional heft. Two and a half years ago, in the middle of his first political campaign, he was on a humanitarian mission to Guatemala when his plane crashed. Eleven people died, including close friends.
“I feel like I’ve got to push as hard as I can and use all my abilities to do things that make a difference,” Liljenquist said. “I just want to make my life count in a way that’s meaningful.” In his first term, he ran for state Senate president and lost by one vote.
That drive will probably take him into next year’s Senate race. The question for Liljenquist is whether he could beat not only only Hatch but also Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a well-known and well-liked lawmaker who is also considering a run next year.
“Chaffetz is loved in the convention environment, he's a darling for conservative republicans and he would be formidable against anybody,” said Jeff Hartley, a strategist and former executive director of the state GOP.
On the other hand, campaigning first for a few thousand convention delegates instead of the entire Republican electorate means name recognition might not be such a huge factor. And Utah voters have shown a preference for dark horses. Bennett, Chaffetz, Lee, former Gov. Mike Leavitt, Derek Smith (who won a Republican primary in 2000 but lost to Rep. Jim Matheson) – all were political neophytes when they ran.
“Dan is a bright, capable person, there’s no question about it,” said Dave Hansen, Hatch’s campaign manager. “The state could continue to use him as a state senator.” Unfortunately for Hatch, Liljenquist doesn’t seem to feel the same way.