Enter Liljenquist, a little-known state legislator first elected in 2008 who is also the survivor of a deadly plane crash
. He's made his mark by helping to reform pensions and Medicaid in the state and speaks freely in granular detail about spending.
"I never practiced law. I used my law degree like an MBA," he said.
Liljenquist is zeroing in on a decision that will come at the end of November, with an announcement likely to follow early next year, he says.
"The only consideration for me is that I've got a young family," the Republican said, adding, "I want to raise them in Utah."
The prospect of defeating Hatch has bred a sense of excitement among conservative activists and groups. But it's by no means going to be an easy task.
Hatch's record has angered many activists in the state. But he hasn't shunned the tea party movement. Instead, he has gone to great lengths to extend an olive branch
to tea party voters, racking up support from national conservative figures like Sean Hannity
and Mark Levin
and even hiring a tea party organizer as a paid staffer
Another factor working in Hatch's favor is his well-stocked war chest. He had $4 million in the bank at the end of the third quarter, no small sum in a Utah Senate race. In the first leg of the race, which leads up to a convention at the end of April, that money will mean very little, as wooing the roughly 3,000 delegates won't be done using statewide TV buys.
But for a candidate to win the nomination outright at the convention, he/she must receive 60 percent of the vote from delegates at any point (there are several ballots). If that doesn't happen, the top two candidates advance to a primary, where money will mean more. And Liljenquist himself acknowledges that he would expect the race to continue into a primary. If that happens, Hatch will have an early head start in both fundraising and name ID.
But Liljenquist is prepared to present a specific case over a long campaign for why Hatch should be replaced, based mainly on spending and entitlements. He was quick to level criticism against Hatch's support for SCHIP, and blasted him for having "advocated for and pushed the biggest entitlement expansion since the '60s ... a $16 trillion unfunded liability for Medicare Part D."
Liljenquist, who received Freedomworks' "Legislative Entrepreneur of the Year Award," is popular among tea party voters. But mindful of a primary that will include more than just party hardliners, he's also treading carefully so as not to alienate voters in the middle.
"I think I'll have tea party support, but I think I'll also have pretty good establishment support," he said.