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.
Hatch has many advantages, including more money — he had $3.25 million cash on hand compared to Liljenquist’s $245,000 — better name recognition and the fact that he has been able to learn somewhat from Bennett’s misfortune — he began embracing some tea party stances in order to stave off a similar fate. Hatch hasn’t left anything to chance. In late 2010, with the tea party wave cresting and the memory of Bennett’s ouster still fresh, Dave Hansen, who worked on Hatch’s last re-election campaign, stepped down from his role as head of the Utah Republican Party to begin prepping Hatch’s 2012 campaign. A year before Liljenquist even declared his candidacy, Hatch had spent $3 million contacting more than 100,000 Republicans in Utah and finding 5,000 citizens to attend neighborhood meetings and run as convention delegates. The effort paid off somewhat, the Salt Like City Tribune reported, with a massive increase in delegates at the convention — though not enough to put him above the magical 60 percent threshold.
“I think Hatch has to be considered the heavy favorite at this point because of his money and organization,” said Webb, who believes the anger over “Obamacare, the stimulus and TARP” has “subsided” and that Utah’s economy has bounced back.
A year ago, “most people were saying, ‘Orrin is dead in the water, he’s not going to make it through the convention,’” Hansen, Hatch’s campaign manager, told TPM. Now, Hansen is very pleased with his work. “We feel in very, very good shape,” he said. The latest poll, from before the convention, put Hatch at 62 percent to Liljenquist’s 20 percent.
Hansen’s preparation is one reason Hatch doesn’t appear destined to Bennett’s fate, although Hansen says Bennett encountered some particularly bad luck. His convention in 2010 came just after the passage of health care reform. “The timing could not have been worse for Sen. Bennett,” Hansen said. “People went to the convention, they wanted to get rid of some people. Didn’t matter who, they just wanted to get rid of them.” Hansen says that time has passed. “This time, there was a different feeling of, ‘Let’s take a look at who’s the best person to represent that state of Utah.’”
Hatch’s campaign is working to persuade voters that he’s still that person. The senator, they argue, has seniority, and would likely become chair of the Senate Finance Committee if Republicans take control of the Senate, putting him in a prime position to work with Mitt Romney if he wins. Romney has endorsed Hatch and even cut an ad for him last month. “He’s gonna be president of the United States and as president he needs Hatch as chair of the Finance Committee to turn this country around,” Hansen said.
Webb believes Hatch has a strong argument. “I think they’ve messaged pretty well on seniority and the possibility of committee chairmanships,” he said.
That doesn’t bother Richardson, who says that Liljenquist — who actually worked at Bain Consulting in Dallas — embodies the real-world experience Romney talks about himself. Besides, said Richardson — likely not winning any points with the NRSC — the chances of Republicans reclaiming the Senate, “are probably kind of iffy on that right now.”
In the next eight weeks, Liljenquist will have opportunities in one-on-one debates to score some points against Hatch, Webb says, and the gap will likely narrow. But as Newt Gingrich could probably attest — it takes more than that to overcome a well-known, deep-pocketed opponent.
Pema Levy is a News Writer at TPM covering the 2012 election. Before coming to TPM, Pema was an assistant editor at The American Prospect where she wrote about politics and the economy.