This Tuesday Utah’s senator and current president pro-tempore Orrin Hatch announced that he would retire by the end of the year. At 83-years-old and with over four decades in office, he is the longest-serving Senate Republican in U.S. history. This announcement comes after his return home for the holidays, where an honest talk with his family prompted him to announce his retirement: “After much prayer and discussion with family and friends I’ve decided to retire at the end of this term.” A video he released this Tuesday confirms that he will not be running for an eighth term in office.
“When the president visited Utah last month, he said I was a fighter. I’ve always been a fighter. I was an amateur boxer in my youth, and I brought that fighting spirit with me to Washington. But every good fighter knows when to hang up the gloves. And for me, that time is soon approaching.”
This announcement coincides with a bout of unpopularity back home: a recent poll by the Hinckley Institute at the University of Utah suggests that 75% of Utah voters do not want Hatch to run again for office. A scathing publication from the The Salt Lake Tribune Editorial named Orrin Hatch “Utahn of the Year,” not for his successes, but for his role in the “dramatic dismantling of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments; his role as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee in passing a major overhaul of the nation’s tax code; his utter lack of integrity that rises from his unquenchable thirst for power.” The publication even described Hatch’s many terms served as “a theft from the Utah electorate.”
Hatch’s retirement announcement comes as a blow for the White House, as it paves the way for former Massachusetts governor and current Utah resident Mitt Romney to fill the position. Whereas Orrin Hatch has a reputation of complete fidelity to the president, describing Trump as “one heck of a leader” and announcing that “we are going to make this the greatest presidency we have seen,” Romney has been openly critical of Trump. During a 2016 speech, Romney criticized Trump as a presidential candidate, saying “Donald Trump is a phony, a fraud.” He has continued to condemn Trump since, announcing that Trump’s reaction to the events in Charlottesville earlier this year “caused racists to rejoice.” Trump has responded with the same acrimony, describing Romney as having “choked like a dog” during his 2012 presidential campaign. Despite the animosity between the two, the former Massachusetts governor seems to have been on Trump’s mind, when earlier this year Trump asked South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham his thoughts on Romney (to which Lindsey responded with praise and the prediction that Romney would make a good senator). And even earlier, Trump was supposedly considering appointing Romney for the position of Secretary of State before ultimately choosing Rex Tillerson.
The president seems to have had foreseen this potential threat: White House staff have been trying to prompt Hatch to rerun and Trump even flew with Hatch via Air Force One to Utah to ‘lobby the senator to run again,’ calling him a ‘true fighter’ and expressing his hope that Hatch would serve “in the Senate for a very long time to come.” And for a while, it seemed as if the positive attention Hatch received for his role in passing the tax reform would prompt him to run another term. In fact, Romney himself seemed to have been operating under the impression that Hatch would run for another term: Hatch had suggested to Romney that he was not ready to leave the position he’s held since 1977 and Romney made no mention of a campaign during a ski trip in Utah with some friends last weekend.
Despite the confusion, Romney has indicated that he might run for the Senate now and will officially announce his intentions in a couple of weeks, now that Hatch has indicated that he will vacate the position. Romney’s chances of winning the senator position in Utah seem hopeful: according to Utah Republican strategist and chairman of Hatch’s political organization David Hansen, “It would be difficult to defeat Mitt Romney if he were running here.” Romney’s senior campaign team would consist of Matt Waldrip (who runs Romney’s annual policy retreats), Spencer Zwick (a long-time fundraiser) and Beth Myers (his former chief of staff). While Zwick would not confirm Romney’s nomination, he did add that “of all the people who can run, Mitt will represent and honor the legacy of Senator Hatch more than anybody.” When questioned about Romney’s relationship with Trump, Zwick simply answered that ‘“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.”
White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders noted that Trump is “very sad to see Senator Hatch leave” and has the “greatest and deepest respect” for Hatch, particularly regarding his role in passing the tax reform.