WASHINGTON — One day last March, Mitt Romney and Senator Orrin Hatch sat together in a hotel suite on the top floor of the JW Marriott hotel in downtown Washington, a few blocks from the White House.
After eating lunch, Hatch revealed why he had called to meet with Romney, who happened to be in town to deliver a keynote address before an annual meeting of the American Apparel & Footwear Association. The seven-term Republican senator had been mulling retirement, and he had an idea: It was time for Romney’s political comeback.
“I told him it was likely I would retire, and I’d sure like to have him succeed me,” Hatch, a senator since 1977, said in an interview. “It would be good for Utah, it would be good for the country. And he could continue his life of public service in a way that would have great meaning.”
That moment firmly planted the seeds for Romney’s unlikely foray into statewide Utah politics nearly six years after he won the GOP’s presidential nomination in 2012 only to lose to President Obama. The seeds Hatch planted would not sprout in earnest for another nine months, but now Romney is by all accounts committed and poised to announce a Senate run as an overwhelming favorite on Feb. 15.
In his meeting with Romney last year, Hatch handed a memo to the former Massachusetts governor — who owns homes in California and New Hampshire, as well as Utah — laying out the case for why he should run in the Beehive State.
At the time, Romney had been passed over by President-elect Donald Trump as a possible secretary of state nominee and was dismayed by some of Trump’s early action as president. Above all, Romney was uncertain how he would stay politically active and make his voice heard.
Hatch, meanwhile, was thinking about his own legacy after more than four decades in office. And while Romney would never amass the seniority that Hatch has in the Senate, he had the gravitas to immediately become a national voice for Utah.
“As I was thinking about retiring I was thinking, ‘I don’t want some dud to replace me,’” Hatch said. “I want somebody who’s capable and could carry on some of the things I’ve worked so hard to do. And Romney fits that bill 100 percent in my opinion.
“He would be low in seniority,” Hatch added. “But he would have immediate attention because of his personality, his attractive appearance and ability to speak, and the experiences he’s had.”
Hatch had not been thinking about Romney as a possible Senate candidate until he saw a comment from Romney in early February. While at a staff celebration of the 15-year anniversary of the 2002 Winter Olympics, Romney mentioned the 2018 US Senate race to a Deseret News reporter.
“I don’t have any predictions on what I might do,” Romney said. “I’m not going to open a door and I’m not going to close a door. All doors are open.”
A Romney adviser said it was just a stock answer meant to not foreclose any possibilities. But at the time Jon Huntsman – a longtime rival of Romney’s who a few months later was named Trump’s ambassador to Russia – was also considering a bid. If Huntsman ran, some longtime Romney advisers felt, then Romney would, too.
But when Hatch saw the comment, he began weighing whether Romney could be persuaded to run. That’s when he called for a meeting and quietly began recruiting him.
The two men, both influential Mormons, have been friends for decades. Hatch had been an early supporter of Romney’s campaigns for Massachusetts governor and his presidential campaigns. And it wasn’t the first time Romney’s name had come up as a potential replacement for Hatch. When Romney went to Utah in 2002 to run the Winter Olympics, he tamped down suggestions that he was going to later run for US Senate in Utah as a Hatch replacement.
“He and Senator Kennedy have made a promise to each other that they’ll be there until they go out in boxes,” Romney told the Globe in 1999.
Nearly two decades later, Romney still seemed to have trouble contemplating Hatch leaving — or seeing himself in the job. After Hatch gave his pitch and presented his memo — the existence of which was first reported by The Atlantic — Hatch said Romney just chuckled.
“He didn’t say no,” Hatch said. “He was very cordial, very nice. But he was non-committed . . . And he realized that I was sincere.”
A few weeks later, Hatch floated Romney’s name publicly, telling National Journal, a Washington news organization, that he would consider retiring if he could get the right person to run for the seat. “Mitt Romney would be perfect,” he added.
Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell spoke several times with Romney, encouraging him to run. Senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain, who in June both attended Romney’s annual E2 Summit in Deer Valley in Utah for business and political elite, were also supportive of a Romney bid.
Romney, who declined a request for an interview, allowed the public speculation to continue. But it was not at the forefront of his mind over the summer as he was treated for prostate cancer and vacationed at his house on the shore of New Hampshire’s Lake Winnipesaukee.
Until Hatch approached him, Romney had little designs on running for the US Senate, beyond his off-hand comments to the Deseret News.
Earlier in the year, he had turned his attention toward helping some of his sons get started in politics. Perhaps his eldest, Tagg, could run in Massachusetts? And Josh, the middle child, has been trying to figure out the right time to run in Utah.
Hatch, who used to go on regular walks with Josh Romney at a park in Salt Lake City, said he worried that Mitt Romney’s ambitions for his son could prevent him from running for US Senate.
“The one thing I thought might stop him is that Josh wants to run for governor in 2020,” Hatch said. “I don’t see how that necessarily stops Josh from doing that. I can see, if handled right, it can even help Josh.”
It was not until August that Romney began a more deliberative process with some of his longtime advisers.
“It was not, ‘Here’s something I’m going to do,’” one adviser said. “It was, ‘This is an interesting idea.’”
“I thought it was crazy,” added the adviser, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “I’ve been to your house in California — what are you thinking?”
His advisers pointed out some of the negative sides to him, emphasizing how unappealing the role as a junior senator can be. One pointed out that then-Senator Scott Brown, after winning a special election in Massachusetts, was stuck for several months in a sparse, cold trailer on the Capitol grounds. Others noted that Romney could appear on any Sunday show he wanted, regardless of whether he is in the Senate.
“It started with ‘not likely – why would I do this?’ ” another adviser said. “But little by little, things started to build.”
Right up until late 2017, there was some confusion over whether Hatch would actually step down.
After publicly floating Romney’s name himself Hatch tried to tamp down the speculation about a handoff of power in Utah. He emphasized to reporters that Romney might not be willing to run. And he said repeatedly that he himself had not made a decision to step down.
“Hatch was much more definitive in the spring about what he was doing than he was in the fall,” said one of the longtime Romney advisers. “Some of Hatch’s staffers had one thought. Others had another thought. My take was Hatch himself was very mushy-mushy on it. My counsel [to Romney] was, ‘Step back. Just step back until it becomes real.’”
President Trump was exerting pressure on Hatch, trying to keep a close ally in Washington as well as prevent one of his most outspoken Republican critics from joining the Senate.
Hatch was also at the forefront of negotiations over the Republican tax bill. Whatever his real intentions, he could not seem like a lame duck if he was going to be effective. And if the legislation hadn’t passed, it’s unclear whether Hatch would have retired.
“He thought, ‘If we’re in the middle of tax reform it might be hard for me to step away and retire,’” said a person close to Hatch. “A lot of people felt tax reform was important to get done.”
It wasn’t until Dec. 20 that the final legislation was passed, making Hatch more comfortable with the idea of announcing his retirement.
But even then, it took a few weeks before he would make it official. During that period, there was little communication between Romney and Hatch. Some in Romney’s orbit were urging him to run in a primary against Hatch, but Romney was never on board.
“He wouldn’t have run if I decided to run again,” Hatch said. “I admire him, I like the guy and I think he’s a very fine fellow. And I believe he likes me quite a bit, too.”Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.