Talking Points Memo Profiles Dan Liljenquist '01, Challenging Orrin Hatch in Utah Primary

From Talking Points Memo:

If this were 2010, Dan Liljenquist might be coasting toward a Republican Senate nomination in Utah and then a sure victory in November — a similar road to Sen. Mike Lee, who ousted Bob Bennett two years ago. What a difference two years makes.

Liljenquist, a former Utah state senator, is taking on 36-year incumbent Sen. Orrin Hatch. Last Saturday at the state GOP’s nominating convention, the spot where Bennett was ousted two years ago, Liljenquist came within .8 of a percentage point of not making it to the primary himself. He beat eight other challengers, taking in 40.8 percent of the vote, and holding Hatch to 59.2 percent, thereby forcing a primary. Less than one week into the race, Liljenquist is running a very different campaign than a tea party candidate might have waged two years ago.

To start with, Liljenquist has enjoyed unofficial support from the monied tea party group FreedomWorks but doesn’t himself identify as a tea partier. “He’s never labeled himself a tea party [candidate],” Holly Richardson, his campaign chairwoman who resigned her own position in the Utah state house to run his campaign, told TPM. “He has been labeled a tea party candidate, but in fact, he’s a reality-based candidate. He feels like the reality is: We’re out of money.”

Liljenquist has never fully embraced the tea party — he told the Washington Post more than a year ago that the “froth and bubble” of the movement would die down long before concern over the economy goes away. Liljenquist’s campaign plans to focus on the economy and stress extreme fiscal conservatism. He wants entitlement reform, a “cut, cap and balance” approach and backs a balanced budget amendment, among other reforms. But that doesn’t distinguish Liljenquist much — Hatch has also embraced both the BBA and “cut, cap, and balance” during the debt-limit debate in summer 2011 and his campaign website calls for “responsible” entitlement reforms.

“He’s not an extremist, he’s a realist,” Richardson said of Liljenquist. “The so-called more moderate or more mainstream wing of the Republican Party has come to Dan and said, ‘My gosh, you’re not crazy.”

The tea party “adopted” Liljenquist, said LaVarr Webb, a Republican strategist and founder of The Exoro Group in Salt Lake City, but he thinks Liljenquist is “practical.”

The seventh of 15 children, Liljenquist, 37, has degrees from Brigham Young University and the University of Chicago law school. He worked in consulting at Bain Consulting in Dallas and eventually returned to Utah, where he was President of a small call center that, he boasts, he helped double in size. He entered the Utah state Senate in 2008 and pushed his conservative fiscal agenda by successfully tackling pension reform and, the following year, Medicaid reform. He was named a 2011 “Public Official of the Year” by Governing Magazine. He had also caught the eye FreedomWorks, which was already working to oust Hatch, and the group honored him as “Legislative Entrepreneur of the Year Award” in 2011. A month later, Liljenquist resigned his seat to launch his Senate campaign.

Liljenquist may have adapted to the toned-down political climate, but he’s facing a formidable foe in Hatch on June 26 — and though he forced the Senator into a rare primary, his chances of taking him out completely are slim.