Steve Bannon is mulling an endorsement of Sen. Orrin Hatch in his bid to keep Mitt Romney out of the Senate, a source close to President Trump’s former chief strategist confirmed on Sunday.
Bannon is targeting Republican incumbents in 2018 primaries to undermine support for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. Hatch, a McConnell loyalist and a fixture of Washington and the Republican establishment for more than 40 years, is not Bannon’s ideal choice.
But short on insurgent Republicans willing to challenge Hatch, Bannon is eying the seven-term senator as a better option than Romney. Encouraged by Hatch, the 2012 GOP presidential nominee — a sharp, regular critic of Trump — is planning to run for Senate if the incumbent retires.
“If Steve had a choice between Orrin Hatch and Mitt Romney, he would pick Hatch 10 times out of 10,” the source close to Bannon told the Washington Examiner.
Hatch, 83, has delayed any announcement on his midterm plans until after Congress clears tax reform legislation, which could happen this month. Hatch is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, the chamber’s tax writing panel, and does not want to diminish his negotiating leverage by revealing that he plans to retire, if that’s his intention.
Republican insiders in Utah have been expecting Hatch to retire. They say the decision is easier for Hatch to make knowing that Romney is preparing a campaign to succeed him.
Romney, 70, the former Massachusetts governor who now lives in Utah, would be nearly impossible to beat in a GOP primary. His adversarial relationship with Trump is not a problem in Utah, where many conservatives view the president with suspicion.
But, Hatch advisors recently reached out to Bannon and spoke with the Breitbart News executive chairman about 2018, signaling the senator could be having second thoughts about retiring. In Utah, Bannon is willing to put aside his war with McConnell and embrace Hatch if it means blocking Romney, a traditional Republican who has the gravitas to rally considerable opposition to Trump from the Right.
Beyond Boyd Matheson, the former chief of staff to Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, who recently announced he would not run for Senate, there have been few potential recruits in the Beehive State for Bannon to court. State Rep. Daniel McCay is one Republican who might fit the bill for Bannon, but it's unclear if he has the interest or political chops to take on Romney.
That leaves Hatch.
"I think Steve Bannon has found his candidate in Utah," said a GOP insider there, referring to the senator.
Hatch has resisted criticizing Trump. Indeed, the senator, who has worked closely with the White House on myriad issues, recently praised Trump as among the best of the seven presidents he has served under. But there’s little doubt Trump, who periodically urged Hatch to run for re-election even before Romney was in the picture, would prefer the senator stick around if for no other reason that it would keep one of his nemeses out of Washington.
More information could emerge this week. Trump is headed to Utah for his first visit as president; Hatch extended the official invitation, with the trip’s itinerary dictated in large part by his staff.
The purpose generally is for Trump to make an announcement on federal lands policy, a major issue in Utah, a state with millions of acres under D.C.’s control. But, perhaps more important to Hatch, Trump will also meet with leaders of the Mormon Church, with whom he has had a strained relationship.
It’s during this visit that Utah Republicans will pay keen attention to what Trump says about Hatch vis a vis the midterm elections. Will Trump publicly encourage him to run for re-election? If he does, how will the senator respond, especially with tax reform on the cusp of completion?
“When Sen. Hatch was campaigning with Donald Trump Jr., before the election, he said they definitely want to drain swamp, but that they want to keep this guy,” said a source close to Hatch. “That’s been the vibe from Trump World because of how loyal he’s been, but also because he’s been an effective consigliere on taxes and judges and things like that.”