There’s been a question on the minds of many Utahans lately: Will Sen. Orrin G. Hatch run for an eighth term?
“While I have taken steps to run, I have yet to make a final decision,” Hatch, the most senior GOP senator, said in a statement. “I remain focused on my work in the Senate and will make any political decisions in due course.”
When he last ran for re-election in 2012, Hatch said that his seventh term would be his last. But now, he isn’t ruling out another run.
Utah political strategists point to a number of factors that could help Hatch’s re-election bid: less opposition from hard-line conservatives in the state, and a new avenue to avoid a potentially perilous nominating convention. But one unexpected development has been as a major factor in Hatch’s possible change of heart: Donald Trump in the White House.
What changed since 2012
With Republicans in control of Congress and the White House, Hatch has said he sees a new opportunity to wield his power as Senate Finance chairman. The committee has broad jurisdiction over key tenants of the GOP agenda such as overhauling health care and a tax code rewrite.
Hatch, a senior member of the Judiciary Committee, was also a key supporter of newly minted Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s pick to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia.
“I think Donald Trump’s election,” Hatch told Salt Lake City CBS affiliate KUTV this month, when asked what changed his mind about definitely leaving the Senate. “I am right in the middle of everything there.”
Hatch, 83, was first elected to the Senate in 1976, when he ousted Democratic incumbent Frank Moss by arguing that Moss’ 18 years in the chamber were enough. Hatch has now been in the Senate for 40 years, and sees the influence that comes with seniority as an asset.
“I think the voters would understand that he’s in good health and he’s in a great position in the Senate,” said Dave Hansen, a Hatch adviser who ran his 2006 and 2012 campaigns. “Why give it up?”
But one of Hatch’s potential primary challengers doesn’t buy that argument.
Derek Miller, the CEO of World Trade Center Utah and former chief of staff to Gov. Gary R. Herbert, said he’s thinking “very seriously” about a Senate run, and expects to make a final decision in the fall.
“If the excuse is that there’s more work to be done, then no one would ever retire,” Miller said. “Tax reform will happen with or without Sen. Hatch. Supreme Court nominees will get confirmed with or without Sen. Hatch.”
State of play
While Hatch has not made a final decision, he has taken a few steps toward running. He raised more than $1.5 million in the first quarter of 2017, and has more than $3.5 million in cash on hand, according to figures provided by his campaign.
Hansen said the campaign has also spread the word about Hatch’s accomplishments, including a recent mailing highlighting his work on Gorsuch’s confirmation.
But Hansen said the campaign is not as active as it was at this time in the 2012 cycle, thanks in part to a change in the state’s election rules.
In the past, candidates had to go through a party convention to qualify for the primary. If a candidate didn’t clear a certain percentage of the delegate vote, only the top two finishers made the ballot. In 2010, anti-establishment tea party sentiment swept over the convention, and delegates ousted incumbent GOP Sen. Robert F. Bennett, paving the way for Mike Lee, Utah’s current junior senator, to win the seat.
So, in 2012, Hatch’s campaign spent between $3 million to $4 million to ensure that supportive delegates would be part of the convention, Hansen said.
But beginning last year, candidates now have a second option to get on the ballot: gathering signatures (28,000 for a Senate candidate), or they can use both options.
Hansen estimated that a signature campaign would cost around $150,000 to $200,000, but suggested Hatch would utilize both options if he runs for re-election.
Strategists say Hatch is also helped by the sense that there isn’t a potential candidate with the same fundraising prowess.
Former Gov. Jon Huntsman was thought to be a potential challenger, but he has reportedly been tapped to be ambassador to Russia.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, ran the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics in 2002 and, as a member of the Mormon church, is popular in the state. Hatch has cited Romney as a potential successor, but said Romney has assured Hatch that he would not challenge him.
Evan McMullin, who took 22 percent of the Utah vote in his independent presidential campaign last year, has also said he is open to challenging Hatch. But LaVarr Webb, a longtime GOP strategist, said McMullin may not be viable because he “hasn’t really paid his dues” in Utah politics.
Webb said Hunstman and Romney have the name recognition and money to wait out Hatch, but lesser-known candidates could have used this time to start building their campaigns.
“That’s probably the biggest impact of the uncertainty regarding Hatch, is whether potential donors — it kind of freezes them and keeps them from contributing to someone like Derek Miller,” Webb said.
Time for a change?
Still, Hatch is facing pressure to not run again. A January 2017 poll from The Salt Lake Tribune and the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics found that 78 percent of Utahans surveyed believed Hatch should probably or definitely not run for an eighth term.
“It’s time for someone else to have that seat,” said Holly Richardson, who ran former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist’s primary campaign against Hatch in 2012.
Miller, the World Trade Center Utah CEO, said he didn’t have specific criticisms of Hatch, but also said it’s time for a change.
“I believe that’s how the vast majority of Utahans feel,” he said.
Jenny Wilson is hoping Utahans are clamoring for an even bigger change. The Salt Lake County council member is exploring challenging Hatch as a Democrat, though Utah hasn’t elected a Democrat to the Senate since 1970.
“I’m closer to running than when I started,” said Wilson, a member of the Democratic National Committee’s transition team, which is focused on expanding the party’s representation.
She said that, as a council member of Utah’s most populous county, she represents a third of the state’s population. Wilson said voters tell her they want someone who represents their own interests.
But Wilson’s bid would be a long shot in the Beehive State. Inside Elections with Nathan Gonzales rates the Utah Senate race as Solid Republican.
“He will win”
Hatch’s supporters, and even some of his critics, are confident he would be extremely difficult to beat.
“If he does seek re-election, he will win,” Hatch spokesman Matt Whitlock said in an emailed statement, underlining the last three words.
Hatch’s 2012 victory in the face of a tea party challenge could discourage potential challengers, said Hansen, the senator’s former campaign manager.
“I think they look at it and say, ‘Look, if we try to challenge him, he’ll just beat us again,’” Hansen said.
Utah strategists say the anti-establishment environment from 2010 has fizzled with respect to Hatch. A spokesman for conservative group FreedomWorks, which supported Hatch’s 2012 challenger, said it was too early to determine whether the group would be involved in Utah.
“That momentum that claimed the position of Sen. Bob Bennett in Utah is not really there right now,” said Jason Perry, head of the Hinckley Institute that has conducted polls of the electorate. He said most Utahans approve of the job Hatch is doing, even if many believe he should step aside.
Chuck Warren, who worked on voter contact and grass-roots consulting on Hatch’s 2012 campaign, said he did not think outside groups would get involved against Hatch this time. He pointed out that those groups are focused defending more vulnerable Republican congressional seats.
“They have bigger problems,” Warren said.