Politics & Policy

The Man Who Could Be Senator

Dan Liljenquist challenges longtime senator Orrin Hatch.

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 out 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, 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.”

As senator, Liljenquist promises to pursue a more cautious foreign policy. He lays down as his first principle the belief that “the president should not get us into conflicts unless there are clear and present dangers to U.S. citizens.” He adds, “I don’t think it’s particularly effective to force democracy into tribal societies, and I don’t think that’s our role.”

He believes the U.S. involvement in Libya was hard to justify: “I did not see a clear and present danger. . . . I was opposed to the Libya conflict as I would be opposed to a Syria conflict.”

On Iran, he’s more hawkish. “If they end up having a nuclear weapon and we take them at their word that they intend to use it, that certainly would be a threat,” he says. And as for Afghanistan, Liljenquist says, “With the killing of Osama bin Laden, it appears that much of the clear and present danger has been removed, although I don’t have access to all the information.” The president’s declaration of a timeline was not “inappropriate,” he says, because “maybe you give a timeline so the government can transition and take over.” With respect to the president’s approach toward that war-torn country, Liljenquist concedes, “I would have done something similar.”

Liljenquist decided to run against Hatch in 2009, when the senior senator met with the state senate to discuss federal matters. When Hatch began to publicly decry the Obamacare legislation, Liljenquist remembered that the senator had sponsored a bill including an individual health-care mandate, that he had supported an extension of the children’s health-care program SCHIP, and that he had voted for Medicare Part D.

“I don’t have a problem with the prescription-drug program in Medicare,” Liljenquist says. “What I have a problem with is, we didn’t have a way to pay for it. That was the height of irresponsibility.” And he’s not letting Hatch live it down. In the run-up to the state convention, Liljenquist hit Hatch for his support of Medicare Part D and No Child Left Behind. Nonetheless, Hatch showed remarkable strength, narrowly avoiding a primary fight. Through April 1, the senior senator had raised $6.4 million to fend off Liljenquist, and he had $3.2 million in cash on hand, with no debt. Liljenquist, on the other hand, had raised about $469,000, with $242,000 in cash on hand and $300,000 in debt (a loan from himself).

“Will we raise as much money as he’s raised?” Liljenquist asks. “No, but it doesn’t matter. From the last election cycle till now, he’s spent $8 million just to have this reset. There’s a saturation point that you can reach on the airwaves. I think he’s at his pinnacle.”

Going forward, Liljenquist hopes to combat Hatch in a series of debates. He’s challenged the senator to a debate on each of eight college campuses, including Brigham Young University and Utah State University. Because the state’s population is small, 2.8 million, and there’s only one media market, Liljenquist argues that he’ll raise just enough money to remain competitive.

The most important issue, Liljenquist says, is the fiscal irresponsibility in Washington. “Our party is always pointing to the Democrats saying, ‘It’s their fault.’ Now, it’s our fault. And I don’t think Senator Hatch will lead. He’s gone the wrong direction all these years.”

And if Liljenquist wins the primary on June 26, he promises to be the man who reverses course.

— Brian Bolduc is an editorial associate for National Review.