Sen. Orrin Hatch, the longest serving Republican in the Senate, announced his retirement Tuesday — and it could open the door for another Senate upset in 2018.
Hatch, 83, has served the state of Utah in the upper chamber since first being elected in 1976. While Hatch had previously promised that his 2012 run would be his last and confided in friends that he was set to retire, President Trump had begged him to stay both publicly and privately.
The New York Times notes that the president used a speech in Salt Lake City in 2017 to say he hoped Hatch would “continue to serve your state and your country in the Senate for a very long time to come.”
“Then on Dec. 20, at a White House event celebrating passage of the comprehensive tax cut that Mr. Hatch helped write, the president pulled him aside to again ask him to run,” The Times reported.
While Hatch used his retirement announcement to mention the president’s entreaties, he said that it was time for retirement.
“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’ve brought that fighting spirit with me to Washington,” Hatch said.
“But every good fighter knows when to hang up the gloves. And for me, that time is soon approaching.”
Utah is normally a highly Republican state. According to the Washington Examiner, the last Democrat governor was elected in 1980 and the last Democrat they sent to the Senate was defeated by Hatch almost 42 years ago.
However, a poll conducted last summer showed Democrat Jenny Wilson ahead of Hatch in a hypothetical matchup. It’s worth noting that the poll didn’t mention Wilson’s party affiliation; when another poll was done mentioning that she was a Democrat, Hatch came out safely ahead.
Wilson, a former candidate for Salt Lake City mayor, used the occasion to tout that she was now facing “unknown” competition in the 2018 election.
“While I’ve disagreed with his approach, I appreciate Senator Orrin Hatch’s years of service to Utah. His retirement means I’ll now face an unknown opponent in 2018,” Wilson wrote on Facebook.
However, her opponent might not be too unknown. Several possibilities have come up — and for conservatives, two of them could be problematic, if not disastrous.
The choice bandied about most by media sources is Mitt Romney. While Romney served as governor of Massachusetts, most of his ties are in Utah, and reports say that Hatch planned to clear a path for the 2012 GOP presidential standard-bearer to run for his seat.
Except for a brief period where he was being considered for Trump’s secretary of state, Romney has been critical of the president both before and after the election. That criticism reached a fever pitch after the president’s controversial statement on the Charlottesville attack.
“I will dispense for now from discussion of the moral character of the president’s Charlottesville statements,” Romney wrote on Facebook. “Whether he intended to or not, what he communicated caused racists to rejoice, minorities to weep, and the vast heart of America to mourn.
“His apologists strain to explain that he didn’t mean what we heard. But what we heard is now the reality, and unless it is addressed by the president as such, with unprecedented candor and strength, there may commence an unraveling of our national fabric.”
In spite of Romney’s hand-wringing — which certainly wasn’t confined to Charlottesville — he might be the better of the two big-name GOP candidates tipped for the spot.
Evan McMullin, the former CIA agent who rose from obscurity to quasi-fame after becoming Bill Kristol’s quixotic #NeverTrump presidential challenger in 2016, refused to rule out a challenge to Hatch when he was interviewed by the Salt Lake Tribune shortly after the 2016 presidential election.
McMullin said he had met with Hatch for a “friendly discussion about a variety of challenges facing the country,” but seemed to indicate he was considering aiming for the seat.
“He’s a nice man and has served our country for decades,” McMullin said regarding Hatch. “I haven’t decided if I’ll run for Senate or another office in 2018. I’ll make that decision based on what is best for the future of Utah and our nation.”
If Romney is the frying pan for the White House, McMullin would be the fire. The former candidate has tacitly accused the president of treason on Twitter, saying that Trump “is purposely dismantling barriers that protect our nation from dangerous Russian subversion, which he has also welcomed.”
“It must be clear that Donald Trump is not a loyal American and we should prepare for the next four years accordingly,” McMullin added.
.@realDonaldTrump is purposely dismantling barriers that protect our nation from dangerous Russian subversion, which he has also welcomed.
— Evan McMullin (@EvanMcMullin) December 10, 2016
It must be clear that Donald Trump is not a loyal American and we should prepare for the next four years accordingly. @realDonaldTrump
— Evan McMullin (@EvanMcMullin) December 10, 2016
If McMullin was willing to consider a run against Hatch, a Utah institution, one would assume he would be just as willing to take on Romney; even if Romney has been hard on Trump, he’s certainly been more measured (read: sane) in his criticism than McMullin has been, and McMullin could hit Romney on his willingness to be considered for the secretary of state position under the Trump administration.
So, Romney would be a RINO and McMullin might even be worse than a Democrat. Who, then, can conservatives hope for to replace Hatch?
One answer might be Rep. Mia Love, the representative for Utah’s 4th Congressional District and the first black Republican woman to be elected to Congress.
Love has been a consistent conservative voice in the lower house and is considered a rising star within the party. When asked about a potential Senate run in the Capitol Building elevator by an unknown source back in November of 2017, Politico’s Colin Wilhelm reported that Love said, “no, but Hatch isn’t sticking around. We’re trying to get Mitt.”
According to the Washington Examiner, she later clarified her remarks to say they were “reported out of context.”
“I never mentioned whether Senator Hatch is running or not, and the staffers with me can confirm this. I have great respect and admiration for Senator Hatch. I appreciate his friendship and support for me throughout my career, and I will continue my long-running support for him,” Love said.
Now that Hatch is out of the way, though, conservatives might rally around Love — especially if the top two choices are McMullin and Romney.
If the nominee is either Romney or McMullin, even though both are big names, conservatives are going to be hard-pressed to find a reason to come out to the polls. That could hand the race to Jenny Wilson or another Democrat, especially given the fact the opposition party tends to pick up seats in the midterms.
Even though the Senate map is favorable to the Republicans, a loss in Utah would be crushing. And, with Romney and McMullin, a win could be just as problematic.
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