WASHINGTON — Republican Senator Orrin Hatch is reportedly telling friends that he won’t seek reelection in Utah, which would make him the fourth GOP incumbent to decline to seek another term or lose a primary and would also clear the path for Mitt Romney to mount a Senate race.
The report, based on five anonymous sources close to Hatch, appeared Friday in The Atlantic. A campaign spokesman for the 83-year-old Utah senator said that Hatch has not made up his mind about whether to run.
Three people close to Romney told the Globe that he’s exploring the option of running. Romney’s former staffers have repeatedly said that he would run in his adopted home state only if Hatch bowed out.
“I really think Mitt’s going to do it,” said a prominent Utah Republican, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “Mitt doesn’t do this unless it’s in coordination with Orrin. And Mitt is definitely stepping it up.
“He’s out there helping candidates, which he’s always done,” the person added. “But he’s starting to poke around on what a team might look like.”
The notion of Romney mounting another campaign presents a nightmare scenario for President Trump, who would be trading an ally in the Senate for a far less friendly voice. As a former Republican nominee for president with his own relations with international leaders, Romney, 70, speaks for the Republican Party in a way that most senators don’t.
He’s also been a vocal White House critic, most recently blasting Trump’s tepid reaction to the white-nationalism fueled violence in Charlottesville, Va. “Whether he intended to or not, what he communicated caused racists to rejoice, minorities to weep, and the vast heart of America to mourn,” Romney wrote in a Facebook post.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Romney called Trump a “phony” and a “fraud” — but after Trump won, Romney auditioned to be Trump’s secretary of state and met with him twice, including a meal that included sauteed frog legs at a restaurant at the Trump International Hotel in New York.
“He would be beholden to nobody,” said Beth Myers, a former top Romney aide, in an interview before the Atlantic story was released. “He would be an independent voice in the Senate, there is no doubt about that.”
The sentiment is shared by leaders of the nationalist wing of the Republican Party. Sebastian Gorka, a former White House aide, called Romney “just another RINO,” or Republican In Name Only.
“He is the epitome of the old school Republican elite,” said Gorka. “Romney is the opposite of the spirit of the Make America Great Again agenda.”
Others offered similar views. “The last thing the US Senate needs is another never Trumper whose main goal is to target the president and kiss up to the mainstream media,” said one former White House staffer who is aligned with efforts to mount primary challenges to sitting Republican senators.
Speculation has swirled that Romney might run for Senate since March when Hatch told the National Journal he would consider retirement if he had a “really outstanding” potential successor.
“Mitt Romney would be perfect,” Hatch said at the time, according to the publication.
In a statement Friday, a spokesman for Hatch strongly denied that a decision has been made.
“He has not made a final decision about whether or not to seek reelection, but plans to by the end of the year,” said Dave Hansen, a campaign consultant for Hatch.
Hatch and Trump have a good relationship, and the president is set to visit Utah in December when he will officially announce the decision to shrink the Bear Ears National Monument, a request made by Hatch.
Romney, who was the first Mormon to be a presidential nominee for a major party, now counts Utah as his primary residence. He frequently gathers top Republican thinkers and officials at his estate in Halladay, Utah, in an area that was originally settled by his ancestors.
He’s also done some politicking, including giving a speech at a recent rally in Idaho to endorse Tommy Ahlquist, who is running for governor there. “This is like the good old days, being back in eastern Idaho,” Romney said to a crowd of 550, according to local press reports.
In Utah, political observers believe Hatch wants to time his announcement to the president’s trip to Utah. Federal candidates in Utah have until March 2018 to declare their candidacy.
Stephen Bannon, the executive chairman of Breitbart News and a former White House aide, has reportedly met with some potential candidates for the Senate who would be stylistically more similar to Trump than Romney. A person close to Bannon predicted that Romney would face a “bloody primary” but also acknowledged Romney would probably win.
So far this year, two of Trump’s top GOP critics in the Senate, Jeff Flake of Arizona and Bob Corker of Tennessee, have opted not to run again, which will clear out some of the anti-Trump sentiment from the upper chamber.
Another critic, John McCain of Arizona, is undergoing treatment for an aggressive form of brain cancer.
McCain, who was the 2008 GOP presidential nominee, likes the idea of having the 2012 nominee as a colleague.
“Oh, he’d be outstanding,” McCain, 81, said of Romney during a brief interview near the Senate chamber. “He’s eminently qualified. He’s very well-liked by both sides.”
McCain said he and Romney haven’t spoken about a campaign. “I know he’d be a very viable candidate,” McCain said. “We are good friends. We are good friends. That means we have differences. But he is a very honest man.”