Facing his most competitive reelection in years, Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch pledged in 2012 that this would be his final term. But as 2018 nears, Utah Republicans and politicos are betting that he will make another run.
A little more than a year into his gig as president pro tempore of the Senate—a job that comes with a security detail and leaves him third in line to the presidency—observers and former staffers said they see no sign of the 82-year-old slowing down, especially if Republicans hang onto the Senate.
“I worked for him on the 1994 Hatch campaign, 22 years ago,” said Jeffrey Hartley, a former executive director of the state Republican Party. “My opinion, being an observer of Senator Hatch since then, is that if he’s in good health, he’s going to run again because being a United States senator is in his DNA.”
Hatch stoked speculation that he could seek reelection in a 2014 radio interview, when the seven-term senator suggested that he might stick around if the Senate was in the middle of tax reform and “people were demanding that I get it done.”
“You’d always have to put the country first,” Hatch said then. “We’ll just have to see.”
Tax reform could drag out to 2018, but some state Republicans suggest the future of the Supreme Court ignites a more compelling case for another Hatch term.
He has placed himself at the center of the current nomination battle, sticking firmly by the party line of delaying hearings even as President Obama repeatedly used Hatch’s supportive comments about Merrick Garland in 1997 as evidence of the judge’s bipartisan appeal.
Hatch sat down with local press during the spring recess to discuss the Supreme Court and his work in the Senate. And in an op-ed Monday in The New York Times, Hatch reminded voters of his “nearly four decades” on the Senate Judiciary Committee, describing what he saw as a “deterioration of the confirmation process.” Hatch has been on the committee for the nomination of every justice since Sandra Day O’Connor.
“There’s a potential of four new justices in the next president’s administration,” said Spencer Stokes, who worked on Hatch’s 2000 presidential campaign and is a former chief of staff for Sen. Mike Lee. “It’s the one thing that everybody in Utah knows, and that is that Senator Hatch is a member of the Judiciary Committee.”
Hatch’s office did not respond to several requests from National Journal for comment about his plans. If he does run, Hatch should probably expect another contentious race.
State Republicans have thrown around names of potential challengers, including former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist, who lost to Hatch in 2012, Mitt Romney’s son Josh, and state Sen. Deidre Henderson.
Reached for comment, Liljenquist said he’s considering another run but won’t make a decision for at least a year.
“I had a great time running. I loved it,” Liljenquist said. “Next time, I certainly have more ability to fundraise and reach people that didn’t know me before.”
A change in Utah’s primary-election laws could benefit Hatch. The state legislature passed a bill in 2014 that allows candidates to bypass the party convention and secure a spot on the primary ballot by gathering signatures. This could act as a safety net for the senator if opponents try to shut him out at the convention, as two tea-party-backed candidates did to former Sen. Bob Bennett in 2010. The state GOP is challenging the law in court.
It was at the convention—generally populated by the party’s most conservative activists—where Hatch was most vulnerable in 2012. But after a concerted effort to pack the convention with Hatch supporters, he only narrowly missed out on securing the nomination, coming up a point shy of the 60 percent threshold. That launched the senator and Liljenquist into the Hatch-friendly confines of the far more expansive and moderate primary electorate.
FreedomWorks spent $750,000 to topple Hatch at the convention, but declined to go all-in for the primary, where Hatch crushed Liljenquist by a nearly 2-1 ratio. Both FreedomWorks and the Club For Growth, which declined to go after Hatch in 2012, said they likely won’t decide 2018 targets until after this cycle ends.
If Hatch sticks by his 2012 declaration that this is his final term, the race to replace him will have no shortage of possible candidates. Of Utah’s four-member House delegation, many state Republicans think Rep. Chris Stewart is the most likely contender for an open seat.
Stewart said his only focus is on his current constituents and his reelection. In an interview at the Capitol last week, he called Hatch a “good friend,” who is likely aware that the race could be competitive if he seeks reelection.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz said in an interview that “it’s doubtful” he would give up his spot as chairman of the Oversight committee to become a freshman senator, adding that he finds the 2020 governorship race more appealing.
Henderson, known for her work on tax policy in the state, and Boyd Matheson, Lee’s former chief of staff, didn’t rule out bids. But both said they were not currently considering a run.
Spokesmen for Reps. Rob Bishop and Mia Love both said they do not intend to run for Senate in 2018. Bishop is riding out the end of his tenure as chairman of the Natural Resources Committee and Love is grappling with a tricky reelection campaign this cycle.
Other possible contenders include former state GOP chairman Thomas Wright, Josh Romney, and Derek Miller, head of the Utah World Trade Center and a former chief of staff to Utah Gov. Gary Herbert. State GOP consultants also pointed to Kirk Jowers, who left the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah for a job in the private sector last year.
“Any open Senate seat, should Senator Hatch decide not to run,” Stewart said, “everyone and their dog is going to be looking at that race.”
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