Why Orrin Hatch Could Run Again in 2018

The senator pledged during his reelection campaign four years ago that this would be his last term.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, a senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, speaks with reporters in a basement corridor at the Capitol just after President Obama urged Senate Republicans to grant hearings and a confirmation vote to Merrick Garland, his nominee to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court, on March 16, 2016.
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Ally Mutnick
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Ally Mutnick
March 31, 2016, 8 p.m.

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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