WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney on Monday was skiing in Deer Valley, Utah, heading down the slopes with a small group that included his wife and his longtime adviser Spencer Zwick.
When someone in the group asked whether Romney would run for Senate in Utah, the former presidential candidate shrugged, according to a source who was there. He had thought about it, he said, but he wasn’t sure whether longtime Senator Orrin Hatch would retire.
About 24 hours later, on Tuesday afternoon, Hatch announced that he would not seek an eighth term, dismissing President Trump’s pleas that he run again and paving the way for Romney to reenter the political limelight with a Senate bid.
Romney advisers said Tuesday that they expect him to run for the seat, although the man known for employing a methodical decision-making process has not made a final decision. One adviser said that any announcement would not come anytime soon.
“I don’t think this week or next week; there’s no immediate rush,” said one of his top advisers, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “He’ll now give it serious thought. Much more than he has so far. The calculation to date was there’s no reason to put a campaign together because Hatch was always running.”
While Romney has batted around the idea of running over the past several months, he hasn’t yet come up with a clear rationale for wanting to be a senator, and some within his close-knit circle of advisers have expressed mixed views.
One of the downsides is that the man who ran a business and a state — and then tried to run a country — would be one of 100 in the Senate. On the other hand, as the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, he would have one of the largest profiles in the chamber and could be an outsized voice in countering Trump’s brash brand of politics.
“Did he want to be president? Of course. He ran for president twice. Some might say this is a step down,” the Romney adviser said. “Others say this is a guy who can make a difference. He has a big voice because he ran for president. He can use that voice at a time when there’s a lot of white noise going on.”
Although Romney met with Trump and was a finalist to become secretary of state, he has been one of the most outspoken critics of the president.
He has criticized Trump over leaving the Paris climate accords. He was outspoken about Trump’s response to the Charlottesville, Va., violence. While Trump backed Roy Moore, an accused child molester, in his run for Senate in Alabama, Romney spoke out and said, “Roy Moore in the US Senate would be a stain on the GOP and on the nation.”
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders declined Tuesday afternoon to say whether Trump would support a Romney bid.
“The president certainly has the greatest and deepest amount of respect for Senator Hatch,” Sanders said. “The president certainly praises his service and is very sad to see Senator Hatch leave.”
It was Hatch himself who initially tried to draft Romney as his successor in March, telling the National Journal that he would consider retiring if he found someone suitable to run for the seat.
“Mitt Romney would be perfect,” Hatch said.
Romney had also floated the idea of running, mentioning the 2018 Senate race during an interview with the Deseret News in Utah a few weeks earlier.
“I don’t have any predictions on what I might do,” Romney said then. “I’m not going to open a door and I’m not going to close a door. All doors are open.”
The talk energized Romney loyalists, who wanted to see the former Massachusetts governor back in the spotlight.
But through the fall, Trump tried to convince Hatch to run for reelection rather than pave the way for a Romney bid. Hatch was first elected in 1976, and is the longest-serving Republican senator in history.
“We hope you will continue to serve your state and your country in the Senate for a long time to come,” Trump said during a trip to Utah last month with Hatch.
Hatch appeared torn, continuing to push off any decision. The delay irked some Romney supporters. Some urged him to run regardless of what Hatch decided to do.
But polls continued to show Hatch as vulnerable, and, in a Christmas Day editorial, the Salt Lake Tribune denounced Hatch and called for him to step down.
“Every good fighter knows when to hang up the gloves. And for me, that time is soon approaching.” Hatch said in a video he released Tuesday.
“Although I will miss serving you in the Senate, I look forward to spending more time with my family, especially my sweet wife, Elaine,” he said. “I may be leaving the Senate, but the next chapter of my public service is just beginning.”
Romney praised Hatch, writing in a statement, “I join the people of Utah in thanking my friend, Senator Orrin Hatch for his more than forty years of service to our great state and nation.”
Romney, 70, has been intrigued with the idea of serving in the Senate. In a trait ingrained in him by his father and his faith, he sees public service as a calling. He believes he has something to offer in the current toxic political environment and has been seeking a new chapter in a life that has been filled by his family.
Steve Bannon, the Republican strategist and former Trump adviser, has expressed disdain for Romney and could attempt to find a primary challenger. But few have said they would be willing to run against Romney, and Boyd Matheson, one of the prominent Republicans who met with Bannon last year, has said he would not run.
In one indication of Romney’s preparation, some advisers have been studying the complex rules and filing deadlines in Utah. Candidates need to file their candidacies by mid-March, and then they can attempt to win the GOP nomination at a convention, held in April, or in the primary, held in June.
Another interesting clue: His Twitter profile Tuesday afternoon read “Massachusetts.’’ But by late afternoon, it was changed to Holladay, Utah.
If he enters it, the race would almost certainly be easily winnable for Romney. He is well-liked in Utah, where a majority of the population shares his Mormon faith and where many remember him coming to Salt Lake City to salvage the 2002 Winter Olympics from bankruptcy.
“I think Mitt will have to lay out that rationale besides sort of saying, ‘Yeah, there’s an open seat and I want to run for it.’ He’ll articulate some compelling reasons as to why,” the top Romney adviser said. “But honestly, a lot of that has been put on hold because Orrin Hatch put out very strong signals that he was going to run again.
“Six months ago, I would have said Orrin is out for sure,” the adviser said. “A month ago, I would have said he’s in for sure.”
By Tuesday afternoon, Romney loyalists had an answer: Hatch is out. The only question for them remaining is whether Romney is in.
Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.