WASHINGTON -- A Utah state senator picked up an extra prize while he's in Washington this week, and it's a sign that some tea partiers haven't given up on defeating six-term Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch next year.
FreedomWorks, which helps mobilize local tea party groups, named State Sen. Dan Liljenquist, R-Bountiful, its "Legislative Entrepreneur of the Year" for his work on pensions and Medicaid.
The award isn't an official endorsement, but FreedomWorks has for months made no secret of its desire to replace Hatch. The group had been hoping Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz would run, but he eventually declined and opted to seek re-election to the House.
FreedomWorks said that legislation from Liljenquist moving future state employees into a 401(k) system will help secure the state's financial future while other states struggle to cover massive pension liabilities. He also led proposed changes to the state's Medicaid program that would move participants into managed care and away from the fee-for-service system that pays health care providers simply based on the services they perform.
"He showed true leadership by building a large coalition to pass politically challenging spending problems, while sticking to his principles," said FreedomWorks Chairman Dick Armey. "Congress could learn a thing or two from Liljenquist.
Liljenquist said he's leaning toward challenging Hatch and will likely make his decision by the end of the month.
Liljenquist acknowledged that thousands of state employees were not happy with the changes he sought for the pension system. He said the contributions that the state makes to employee retirement will be comparable to the old system -- 10 percent of a worker's salary. But the state will no longer be tied to guaranteeing a certain rate of return on its investment.
FreedomWorks said that entitlement programs will be the fight of the coming decade and that Liljenquist has shown he could lead that fight for conservatives.
Hatch would be a formidable opponent. He has worked hard to reach out to the state's conservative base and to win them over going into the Utah Republican Convention, where two years ago, Sen. Bob Bennett was defeated. Hatch also had more than $4 million in the bank at the end September. But Liljenquist said he believes Utah voters are ready to give someone new a chance.
"Elections are about the future," Liljenquist said.