Republican Boyd Matheson has opted against a run for Senate in Utah, clearing a path to the Republican nomination for Mitt Romney, who would then be the overwhelming favorite in the general election, if Sen. Orrin Hatch retires next year.
Matheson, the former chief of staff to Sen. Mike Lee, could have commanded a significant level of support from Utah's conservative base. It probably wouldn't have halted Romney, who is extremely popular in the state. But it could have complicated the 2012 Republican presidential nominee's path to the senatorial nomination, forcing him to contend with those to his Right.
Matheson met recently with Steve Bannon, President Trump's former chief strategist, about running for Senate. His exit deprives Bannon of a Utah recruit with grassroots credibility, and opens the door ever wider for Romney, a regular, blistering critic of the president.
"I have decided that I will not seek a seat in the United States Senate. Instead, I will focus my effort and attention on the desperate need in the nation for strengthening and building leaders while advancing real dialogue about the principles and policies that will create a better tomorrow for America," Matheson, president of the Sutherland Institute, a conservative think tank in Salt Lake City, said Monday in a lengthy statement shared first with the Washington Examiner.
Hatch, 83 and serving his seventh term, is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, the chamber's tax-writing panel. He is expected to announce his 2018 plans in December or early next year, but certainly not before the debate over the Republicans' tax overhaul is complete. Though a historically formidable figure in Utah, an overwhelmingly Republican state, polling conducted this year has suggested that Hatch could be vulnerable in the midterm.
The senator, in news first reported by The Atlantic in the spring, has indicated privately that he plans to retire, a decision that would be encouraged if Romney, 70, his preferred successor, decided to run.
Romney put his criticism of Trump on a brief pause last year during the transition process, when he was briefly considered for secretary of state. He has since resumed the role of Republican elder statesman holding Trump accountable. His Senate candidacy, which Republican insiders in Utah say is in the active planning stages, could contribute to the volatile, internal GOP debate about the direction of the party.
In Matheson, Bannon might have secured a recruit willing to oppose Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. Bannon, the chairman of Breitbart News, is looking to field Republican primary challengers in 2018 who will vow to oppose re-electing McConnell to his leadership post as party of a proxy war for control of the GOP. That effort is uncertain given the controversy surrounding Alabama Senate nominee Roy Moore, who Bannon has invested in considerably.
Although Utah isn't necessarily fertile territory for Trump — there was a period in 2016 when the president appeared vulnerable there — the conservative grassroots in the state have shown a penchant for ousting incumbent Republicans. In 2010, Lee defeated veteran Republican Sen. Bob Bennett for the GOP nomination on his way to a general election victory in the Tea Party midterm wave. However, there has been a key change to the Utah GOP's nominating system.
When Lee won his first term, nominations were decided in a convention format that favored conservative challengers. Now, primary candidates have the option of bypassing the convention and petitioning onto the statewide ballot, where a higher population of rank-and-file Republicans can influence the outcome. That would be an obvious option for Romney, if the need arose.
"Utah has sent principled leaders to Washington in the past, and I am confident we will do so again in 2018. The state of affairs in our country indicates we are entering one of democracy’s most difficult exams – one that will require real profiles in courage from true leaders," Matheson said.