Republicans in Utah are on edge as they await a decision from Sen. Orrin Hatch on 2018 that could determine whether Mitt Romney’s political career has one more act.
Hatch is reconsidering retirement after receiving encouragement from President Trump and his allies, and soaking up praise for shepherding a historic tax overhaul in his role as Senate Finance Committee chairman.
The 83-year-old previously signaled plans to step aside after seven terms and clear a path for Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee and a prominent Trump critic, to succeed him.
Hatch is something of an icon in Utah, but his waffling isn’t sitting well with all Republicans. Some worry Hatch will blow an opportunity to send Romney to Washington, and possibly put his seat in jeopardy in the midterm.
“If Sen. Hatch’s selfish clinging to power prevented Utah and the nation from the influence and impact of a possible Sen. Romney, that would be a tragic stain on the Hatch legacy,” a Republican insider in Utah told the Washington Examiner, on condition of anonymity in order to speak candidly.
Sources close to Hatch said this week that the senator is on vacation with his family but that he planned to reveal his 2018 decision before returning to Washington from the holiday break.
These sources batted down rumors that Hatch is considering running for re-election but only serving two years of his eighth term, after which the governor would appoint a replacement. Per Senate GOP rules, Hatch would be term-limited out of the gavel on the influential Finance Committee at the end of 2020.
“If he runs, he would be running for the six-year term, despite the urging of some to just serve out the last two years of his chairmanship and retire,” a source close to Hatch said. “After fulfilling his decades-long goal of passing comprehensive tax reform, he feels more at ease with the idea of retiring and passing the baton, but until he makes an announcement himself anything is possible.”
Hatch is a formidable political force in Utah, so much so that even the chance that he might run for re-election has frozen the Republican field. Hatch’s clout also has enabled him to designate Romney as his preferred successor at a time when most party establishment power plays are ignored by the Republican grassroots.
Romney’s unique stature in Utah, and that he would enter the Senate as an influential figure despite his junior seniority, is no doubt a factor.
The 70-year-old former Massachusetts governor, who now lives in Utah where he has long owned a home, took command of the troubled 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City and rescued them from ruin. Romney also was the first Mormon to be nominated for president by a major party, significant to voters in a state where most are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Romney’s status as a national leader, one that periodically speaks out against Trump, would give Utah Republicans (themselves wary of the president) the prestigious voice many crave and the feeling of outsized impact they have enjoyed with Hatch.
Despite all of that, Hatch is firmly in control of his, and Romney's, destiny. If the senator runs, Romney and most, if not all big Republican names are expected to stand down. Candidates can begin declaring their intent to gather signatures and run for Senate on Tuesday, and with Hatch having run out the clock, Romney, who comes to the table with name identification and the ability to self-fund, is the only Republican in a position to launch a strong campaign amidst what would be such a late start.
"A lot of Republicans are really frustrated that he’s waited this long," LaVarr Webb, publisher of Utah Policy Daily, said. "It’s almost too late for anyone else, except Romney, to mount a campaign."
"Many people close to Hatch are encouraging him to retire, but he continues to send mixed signals," Webb added. "With all the recent adulation from Trump and tax reform success, Hatch is now starting to feel again that he’s indispensable and needs to stay."
Hatch won re-election with a smart, aggressive campaign in 2012, when GOP nominations were still determined by a state party convention that favored conservative challengers. That’s how Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, ousted incumbent Republican Bob Bennett in 2010.
A change in the process since then allows primary candidates to skip party conventions and go straight to the statewide June primary ballot. That would probably allow Hatch to skirt any surprise Republican insurgency that might bloom in opposition to his re-election.
Discussion of Hatch’s political vulnerability in Utah would normally be limited to the primary. The state is overwhelmingly Republican, having last elected a Democratic governor in 1980; the last Democratic senator from Utah was defeated by Hatch in 1976.
But a public opinion poll conducted last summer showed most voters wanted Hatch to call it quits, so much so that Hatch was losing to Democrat Jenny Wilson in a hypothetical 2018 matchup. The same survey had Romney winning easily. However, in an error acknowledged later, the pollster conceded that Wilson was not identified as a Democrat. In a subsequent poll, when Wilson's party affiliation was noted, Hatch won their hypothetical competition.
Regardless, some Republicans worried that Hatch is weaker than in the past, susceptible to an upset against the right kind of Democrat.
Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams is one such Democrat. Likable and with a moderate image, McAdams is running against Republican Rep. Mia Love in Utah’s 4th Congressional District; he could switch races if Democrats sensed an opportunity. Others caution that Hatch should not be underestimated, regardless of voter sentiment at the moment.
"No poll can adequately account for the toughness of Sen. Hatch as a candidate," said Jason Perry, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah. "In a general election between Hatch and a Democratic challenger, it very much depends on who the Democratic candidate is. But at the end of the day, party roots run deep in this very Republican state, and any Democrat would have a very tough time challenging Hatch."