SALT LAKE CITY — Former Republican Utah legislator Dan Liljenquist has a message for longtime Sen. Orrin Hatch: It's time to come home.
"Even counting for inflation, 36 years is enough," Liljenquist said Wednesday in announcing his candidacy for U.S. Senate. "Service in Congress was never meant to be a lifetime appointment. In the the military there's an adage that says, 'Be brief, be brilliant and be gone.'"
Liljenquist, 37, said he is running because the country needs a new generation of leaders.
Hatch sounded a similar note when he first ran for the Senate in 1976, saying it was time to call home three-term Democratic Sen. Frank E. Moss.
Liljenquist has garnered praise from tea party groups who are disenchanted with Hatch and hopes to pull off the kind of upset that two years ago led to the defeat of Sen. Bob Bennett. GOP delegates ousted Bennett at the state convention.
"I think a lot of the anger has subsided," Liljenquist said.
Still, he said, the approval rating of Congress is at an all-time low and people are looking for leaders who will actually do something.
Elected to the Utah Senate in 2008, Liljenquist resigned last month in a sign that he was likely to challenge Hatch. During his one term, the Bountiful conservative focused much of his legislation on fiscal matters, including reforming Medicaid and the state's pension system for public employees.
Liljenquist, who has a degree in economics from BYU and law degree from the University of Chicago, said curbing the mounting national debt would be his top priority in Washington. The United States, he said, has a spending problem, not a revenue problem. Entitlement programs such as Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security need to be overhauled, he said.
"Reality is not negotiable," he said. "I think what we're waking up to in this country is that we're out of money and we have to make tough choices."
Hatch's campaign manager Dave Hansen welcomed Liljenquist to the race but found his entry puzzling.
"It is perplexing to me why a state senator who hasn’t even finished his first term of service in the state and running on the platform of entitlement reform would want to challenge Sen. Hatch," he said.
Hatch, he said, will be in position to chair the powerful Senate Finance Committee if re-elected and will be critical to getting the nation's fiscal house in order.
"Dan Liljenquist’s mantra on entitlement reforms would be little more than a flimsy campaign promise made by someone who would be positioned on a committee that has no influence over fiscal policy," Hansen said. "Why would Utah want to give up its chance to have an immediate voice in setting the agenda to deal with the most pressing issues of our time?"
Liljenquist praised Hatch's efforts to pass a balanced budget amendment. But "I think I would feel a little better about his efforts on the balanced budget amendment had he not raised the debt ceiling 16 times, expanded entitlement programs with Medicare and other programs that put in us in this situation to begin with."
BYU political science professor Quin Monson sees Liljenquist as a credible challenger to Hatch but one with lots of unknowns.
"I think he's a very substantive candidate in terms of his experience with issues, but that's a little different than being in a very competitive election campaign," he said, noting Liljenquist has never sought statewide office. "It's unknown how ready he is for the rigors of a caucus and convention battle."
Monson said it will be intriguing to see whether Liljenquist can exploit Hatch's weaknesses, which he sees as the senator's age, longevity and loss of favor with the same people who ousted Bennett.
The 77-year-old Hatch, though, is better positioned than Bennett to retain his seat. He has worked hard over the past year to reach out to conservatives and has focused his votes and commentary on their greatest concerns.
Hatch's campaign also has enormous resources at its disposal. He already has more than $4 million in the bank. He has looked so strong that other potential challengers, Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz and Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson, both opted to seek re-election to the House rather than to challenge him.
To counter Hatch's huge financial advantage, Liljenquist is likely to embrace the help of conservative groups that have strong ties to the tea party. FreedomWorks, a national advocacy group, named him its legislative entrepreneur of the year.
FreedomWorks president Matt Knibbe lauded Liljenquist's candidacy.
“Our activists in Utah have repeatedly emphasized that they don’t want another Republican in the Senate, they want a conservative," he said in a statement. "We believe that Sen. Liljenquist will be one of numerous conservative candidates who will be stepping into the race to replace Sen. Orrin Hatch, whose retirement is long overdue.”
Contributing: Associated Press
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