In 1976, a little-known lawyer named Orrin Hatch won the Republican nomination to challenge Utah’s two-term Democratic senator, Frank Moss. That November, Hatch’s nine-point triumph over Moss was considered “the Cinderella campaign of the season,” according to the Deseret News.
Thirty-six years later, Dan Liljenquist is hoping to follow Hatch’s example — in a primary run against the six-term incumbent.
Hatch secured 59.2 percent of the vote at the Utah GOP’s state convention on April 21, only 32 votes shy of the 60 percent required to avoid a primary. Liljenquist, on the other hand, won 40.8 percent of the vote, slightly over the 40 percent threshold to qualify for the ballot. Now, the 37-year-old is making the same argument Hatch used against Moss in his 1976 campaign: He’s been in Washington too long.
The seventh of 15 children, Liljenquist grew up in Idaho Falls, Idaho. He attended Brigham Young University on an academic scholarship that required him to maintain a 3.9 GPA. After graduating with a degree in economics, he earned a law degree at the University of Chicago. In 2001, Liljenquist joined the management-consulting firm Bain & Company. Eventually, he made his way to Roy, Utah, where he became chief operating officer of Focus Services, a small call center that he helped double in size.
In 2008, his local state senator retired, and Liljenquist won the Republican nomination to take his spot. But a near-death experience almost ended Liljenquist’s career early. In August, Liljenquist boarded a plane to Guatemala, where he and his co-workers were going to build classrooms in the countryside as part of a humanitarian project. As the single-engine plane was flying over Guatemala, however, its engine died and the aircraft crashed in the jungle. Eleven of the 14 people on board died, and Liljenquist escaped with two broken legs. The experience inspired Liljenquist to make the most of his life, he says, and that includes public service.
In the state senate, he courted controversy — and later, received praise — for shepherding pension reform into law. Liljenquist’s bill eliminated pensions for legislators and the practice of double-dipping by state employees, and it gradually phased in a defined-contribution plan in place of the more costly defined-benefit plan. For his second act, Liljenquist introduced a bill to reform the state’s Medicaid program, specifically replacing the fee-for-service model with a capitated one to cut costs.
Liljenquist’s pitch, then, is that he’s got the guts to take on entitlements, because he’s done it before. He supports Representative Paul Ryan’s budget; in fact, he prefers Ryan’s more audacious first budget to his more conciliatory second version. (The second includes Democratic senator Ron Wyden’s traditional Medicare plan.)
Calling Ryan “brilliant,” Liljenquist tells NRO, “I think his original plan was the better one, but practically, you’ve got to get it through both houses of Congress.” After initial expansion, every industry matures, pushing down costs, Liljenquist explains, but costs in the health-care industry have continued escalating because of government intervention. With the Medicare option available to future generations (as it is in Ryan’s most recent budget), Liljenquist admits, “I’m not sure that the market forces will be brought to bear to make Medicare mature.” Still, he insists, “it’s hard for me to be critical of the plan.”
He is critical of President Obama’s proposal to maintain a low interest rate on federal student loans. “Government tries to dictate what market rates are. Whenever we do that we create either surpluses or shortages. . . . The market should dictate those interest rates.”