Republicans in Utah expect Mitt Romney to announce for Senate after allowing at least a few days for retiring Sen. Orrin Hatch to bask in the limelight of a high profile, four-decade career on Capitol Hill.
Hatch revealed plans Tuesday to step down at year-end after seven terms, putting an immediate spotlight on Romney. The 2012 Republican presidential nominee has for months signaled his intention to succeed Hatch; Utah GOP insiders say Romney would have killed that speculation had he changed his mind so that other formidable candidates could have prepared to prosecute a potentially arduous campaign.
"I’m quite certain Romney will run. Otherwise, he would have taken himself out long ago," LaVarr Webb, publisher of Utah Policy Daily, told the Washington Examiner. "It is obviously very late in the election cycle for someone to get in who isn’t wealthy or famous. Romney is both."
Romney has periodically sparred with President Trump, delivering blistering criticism during the 2016 campaign and since he entered the White House that the former real estate mogul and entertainer hasn't hesitated to return in kind.
The platform of a midterm campaign and subsequent service in the Senate, plus Romney's unique stature as a senior GOP statesman, could fire up his simmering feud with Trump, exacerbating existing ideological and tonal rifts within the Republican Party between old guard conservatives and insurgent populists.
Trump's nationalist supporters, acknowledging there's nothing they can do to stop Romney from winning in Utah, are preparing to take to friendly media outlets to "kneecap" the wealthy former businessman. "What you can expect is for conservative media to take a sledgehammer to him over the next year," said a strategist with White House ties.
Republicans close to Romney emphasized in interviews with the Washington Examiner that the former Massachusetts governor isn't running as an anti-Trump candidate, even though doing so is probably good politics in Utah, a state that is overwhelmingly conservative but not keen on the president.
Spencer Zwick, a Romney political adviser, said the same in an interview with the New York Times. “When there are things he agrees with him on, he’ll be a big supporter, and when there are things he disagrees with, he’ll voice that,” he said.
Republican insiders connected to Romney and in contact with his confidants, requesting anonymity in order to speak candidly, agree with Webb's assessment. "He's definitely going to pull the trigger," one Utah Republican confidently declared. Added a source close to Romney: "My presumption is that he is going to move ahead."
Hatch, 83, announced in a video message that he will retire from the Senate and will not seek an eighth term despite calls from Trump for him to run again for his safe Republican seat.
During Hatch's 2012 campaign, he said that race would be his last. But the Senate Finance Committee chairman kept the door open to re-election as he soaked in the plaudits for his role in shepherding a historic tax overhaul to Trump's desk. Meanwhile, Hatch maneuvered to ensure Romney was the only viable Republican in position to replace him.
At one point, Hatch said he would consider stepping aside if they got a "really outstanding person" to run for the seat and mentioned Romney specifically. Romney, 70, the former governor of Massachusetts, lives in Utah and has had roots there for decades. Romney victories — in the Republican primary and the general election — are being treated as a foregone conclusion.
"Given Romney’s name recognition and considerable fundraising abilities, it is hard to think of any Democrat or Republican who could pose a serious challenge to him in 2018," said Jason Perry, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah.