Republican insiders in Utah said Monday that Mitt Romney's interest in running for Senate in 2018 is real — the question is whether the party's 2012 presidential nominee will pull the trigger.
The first step in a Romney candidacy would be the retirement of Sen. Orrin Hatch, 83. Fresh polling shows the veteran Republican's popularity in Utah on the wane after more than 40 years on Capitol Hill. In a statewide poll conducted by a Utah pollster, Hatch was actually losing a hypothetical matchup to potential Democratic nominee Jenny Wilson despite the state's overwhelming Republican tilt.
Enter Romney, 70, the former governor of Massachusetts. He's not talking and neither are his close confidants. But Republican operatives in Salt Lake City say his interest is legitimate. Indeed, many believe Hatch is delaying a decision on his reelection until year's end to facilitate a Romney candidacy.
Hatch announcing in December could ease the path to the Republican nomination for Romney, who is personally wealthy and well-liked in Utah, by reducing the amount of time others have to prepare for a possibly competitive and expensive Senate primary.
"Romney's people have been encouraging the talk and Hatch this morning on radio said he would love to have Romney succeed him if he retires," Utah Republican operative LaVarr Webb told the Washington Examiner. "Hatch is freezing the field for so long that it will take someone rich or famous to gear up a campaign. Hatch probably won't announce until December, but I think he retires and Romney runs."
Hatch, chairman of the Senate Finanace Committee, said in an interview with KSL radio on Monday that Romney's plans could have a direct impact on what he decides to do in the midterm.
"As of right now, we're certainly saying we are" running for reelection, Hatch said. "But I have to say that I would be very pleased if Mitt Romney did run for Senate. I would feel good about retirement at that particular point."
In the general election poll from Dan Jones & Associates, Romney led Wilson 64 percent to 26 percent, with 10 percent undecided. The survey of 608 registerted voters was conducted Aug. 30 to Sept. 5. It has an error margin of 3.97 percentage points.
For Romney, the deciding factor could perhaps be whether he wants to enter the Senate at age 72, and deal with the frustration that often accompanies serving in Congress, not to mention a Republican Party that could be in transition under the leadership of President Trump. Romney and Trump clashed during the 2016 campaign, although they appeared to make amends when the president interviewed him for secretary of state.
Still, Romney would likely endure regular attacks from Trump's allies on the populist right, possibly beginning in the Republican primary.
Trump and his brand of Republicanism are not as popular in Utah as in other conservative strongholds. For a brief period, the state appeared competitive in 2016 presidential contest and the Trump campaign was forced to dispatch running mate Mike Pence to the state ahead of Electon Day to rally the troops. But Romney could still be re-entering a cauldron of criticism from the Right that he experienced during his two presidential bids.
"I am still not completely convinced that at 72, Mitt wants to commute to D.C. to vote on obscure judges and the naming of post office buildings. He is clearly looking at what his place will be to make a difference for the next 10 years," a Republican operative in Utah said, on condition of anonymity in order to speak candidly. "Also, would Bannon and company make Mitt's life miserable in a GOP primary?"