WASHINGTON -- The resignation of Republican Dan Liljenquist from the Utah Senate on Thursday gives voters the clearest indication yet that he plans to challenge six-term Sen. Orrin Hatch in a race that will test the clout of conservative activists going into next year's elections.
Liljenquist, 37, was only in his first term of office, but he had already received national recognition for his work overhauling Medicaid and the state's pension system for public employees. He won't make an official announcement about his future political plans until January, but he has said for weeks that he was leaning toward opposing Hatch. Visitors to his website are greeted with the message: "It's Time."
"I do this with a sense of gratitude and optimism," Liljenquist said in his resignation letter. "Life is short. It's time to move on."
Two years ago, Republicans in Utah shocked the nation when they ousted three-term Sen. Bob Bennett at the Utah GOP Convention. The results foretold the difficulties that moderate Republicans would have across the country against more conservative challengers that had aligned themselves with Tea Party supporters.
Hatch, 77, is much 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. For example, he frequently revisits his support for a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution.
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, hinted that it would back a Liljenquist bid last month when it named him the organization's legislative entrepreneur of the year.