SALT LAKE CITY, Utah—Senator Orrin Hatch has privately told allies in Utah that he is planning to retire at the end of his term next year, and if he does, Mitt Romney intends to run for his seat, according to five sources familiar with the situation.
“Nothing has changed since The Atlantic published a carbon copy of this same story in April, likely with the same anonymous sources who were no more informed on the Senator's thinking than they seem to be now,” said Dave Hansen, a spokesperson for Hatch. “Senator Hatch is focused on leading the Senate's efforts to pass historic tax reform, confirming strong judges to courts around the country, and continuing to fight through the gridlock to deliver results for Utah. He has not made a final decision about whether or not to seek reelection, but plans to by the end of the year.” He declined to comment on what Hatch has told allies in private. A spokesperson for Romney declined to comment for this story.
Sources close to both men said plans have already been set in motion for Hatch to retire and for Romney to run, but they cautioned that the timing of the announcements have not yet been finalized, and that either man could still change his mind. They spoke on condition of anonymity, because the plans are not yet public, and the subject is sensitive to Hatch. Already, though, the expected developments are reshaping the state’s political landscape.
Derek Miller, the CEO of Utah’s World Trade Center who said he was exploring a bid for the seat earlier this year, said the plan for Romney to run had been “reported to me as a ‘done deal.’” He added, “if Romney runs, I will fully support him.”
As The Atlantic first reported in April, Romney began exploring a Senate bid earlier this year—privately discussing the prospect with advisers, friends, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who subsequently confirmed the conversations to reporters. Romney, who owns a home near Salt Lake City and enjoys widespread popularity in the state as the first Mormon to have won a major-party presidential nomination, has made clear he will not run unless Hatch decides to bow out.
Republicans in Utah have been quietly working behind the scenes all year to convince Hatch—who, at 83 years old, is the longest-serving Republican Senator in Washington—that it’s time to bring his career to an end. Polls show a large majority of Utahns want him to retire, and he appears extraordinarily vulnerable to a primary challenge. Some GOP leaders in Utah worry that he will lose to an unpredictable insurgent candidate with few ties to the party establishment.
As Politico reported earlier this month, Steve Bannon is planning to support a candidate in the Utah primary, and has already met with Boyd Matheson, the head of a conservative think tank. Matheson has also met with several conservative advocacy groups in Washington. “He is going to be the consensus conservative candidate among all the outside groups and will have a lot of the financial support that’s out there,” Citizens United President David Bossie told Politico.
In an effort to incentivize Hatch to retire, several influential Republican donors—including Spencer Zwick, the former finance chairman for Romney’s presidential campaign—have been working to raise money for a library or institute in Hatch’s name, and sources say the project is on track to receive the necessary funding.
People close to Hatch say he has held off on announcing his plans to retire because he does not want to become a lame duck at a time when Republicans—who control both chambers of Congress and the White House—are better positioned than they have been in years to achieve major legislative gains. A source in Hatch’s office said he is especially motivated to pass tax reform, and doesn’t want to talk about his future until that process is complete. (The source did not confirm that Hatch is planning to retire.)
Even as Romney has remained coy about the prospect of a Senate bid in public, the growing likelihood that he will run has become an open secret in Utah political circles. At a recent gathering of state dignitaries, a prominent GOP donor was heard referring to Romney—in his presence—as “the senator.”
The consensus among political insiders in the state is that Romney will win easily if he runs. And several potential candidates have already signaled that they will not compete for the seat, given Romney’s apparent interest.
People close to Romney say his desire to serve in the Senate now—at a time of tremendous political upheaval and widespread GOP infighting—is multi-faceted. He has told friends that he is alarmed at what he regards as the recklessness and incompetence of the Trump presidency so far, and that he’s worried about what long-term effects Trumpism could have on the Republican Party. Friends also say he is restless and eager to get off the sidelines, and that after years of losing campaigns, the prospect of an all-but-guaranteed electoral victory is extremely tempting.
It’s unclear what a Senator Romney would look like once in Washington. Some people who know him say he might consider muting his criticism of Trump—at least at first—and use his status as an elder statesman in the GOP to rally congressional Republicans around conservative legislative initiatives. Others, meanwhile, believe he would help fill the role being vacated by Jeff Flake and Bob Corker—two outgoing Republican senators who have been outspoken in their criticism of Trump.
This week, the Salt Lake Tribune—which is owned by a member of the influential Huntsman family—published an editorial headlined, “Mitt Romney should be a savior for Republicans and run for Senate.”
“If he decides to run, he would be the leading voice of the Republican Party, and Utah would be his home,” the paper wrote, adding, “Utah would be lucky if Romney decides to run.”