Sen. Orrin G. Hatch’s announcement Tuesday that he would retire rather than seek an eighth term representing Utah opened the door to a return to public office by Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee and a sometimes harsh critic of President Trump.
The contentiousness between the president and Romney has been so acute that Trump had publicly implored Hatch to run again, a barely veiled effort to deny Romney a route to the Senate. But at 83, having spent nearly half his life as a senator, Hatch spurned the president’s request and made good on his long-ago vow to leave office at the conclusion of his current term. He will depart as the longest-serving Republican in the Senate’s history.
“I’ve always been a fighter, but every good fighter knows when to hang up the gloves,” Hatch said in a video announcing his plans. “And for me, that time is soon approaching.”
Hatch’s departure was another sign of the upheaval that is remaking both parties in Washington, due to political disruptions and the fallout of accusations of sexual harassment.
Two of the Senate’s most vocal Republican Trump critics, Jeff Flake of Arizona and Bob Corker of Tennessee, earlier said that they would not seek reelection this year, the result not of the harassment scandals but the tenor of politics in Washington and the changes in their party brought about by Trump’s election.
Their announcements may lead to competitive races that could further curb the narrow Republican control of the Senate. Their departures also created a vacuum into which Romney could slide if elected, as the highest-profile Republican critic of the president.
Romney was not expected to announce his decision for several days or perhaps two weeks, one advisor said. If he does run, as is widely expected, he would start as a prohibitive favorite in a state where he is far more popular than the president.
Other past critics of Trump, like Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, have bowed to the president’s popularity among Republican voters. But none has started off with as complicated a relationship as the president and Romney.
In 2012, Romney sought and received Trump’s endorsement in a visibly nervous ceremony notable for its brevity — five minutes.
Trump tweeted his support for Romney throughout that campaign — but when it came time to launch his own bid, Trump made Romney the target of wounding barbs, calling him a “failed presidential candidate” who was “awkward” and “goofy.”
Romney returned the favor with a blistering denunciation of Trump in early March of 2016, part of an unsuccessful effort to rally Republican opposition to his candidacy.
“Here’s what I know. Donald Trump is a phony, a fraud,” Romney said. “He’s playing the members of the American public for suckers. He gets a free ride to the White House, and all we get is a lousy hat.”
The relationship between the 71-year-old president and his 70-year-old rival appeared to have improved after Trump’s general election victory, when he considered Romney as secretary of State — or at least claimed to. The price of being considered included several public genuflections by Romney, one at an upscale New York restaurant where a photographer captured him looking wan and Trump gleeful.
The testy relationship resumed as the year continued, most recently when Trump endorsed Moore despite allegations from several women that he had assaulted or made advances on them, in some cases when they were teenagers.
“We need Roy Moore to win,” Trump tweeted in early December, declaring his support.
Hours later, Romney responded, also on Twitter: “Roy Moore in the U.S. Senate would be a stain on the GOP and on the nation … No vote, no majority is worth losing our honor, our integrity.”
Beyond the stakes for Trump, Hatch’s retirement announcement underscored tumult among Republicans in the western United States that may complicate their efforts to hold on to the Senate. In Nevada, Republican Dean Heller faces a potentially difficult reelection after tying himself closely to Trump to avoid a challenge from the president’s wing of the party. That has left him vulnerable to a Democratic competitor in a state where Latinos and suburban voters have grown increasingly antagonistic toward Trump.
In Arizona, Flake’s seat is expected to be competitive, with Democratic Rep. Kyrsten Sinema lined up to run. The state’s other senator, John McCain, who is undergoing treatment for brain cancer, is not up for reelection until 2020. But his bleak long-term prognosis has led Republican candidates in the state to ponder a second potential opening.
Those seats could be competitive. By contrast, the seat held by Hatch is expected to remain in the Republican camp, especially if Romney runs.
Hatch said earlier this year that Romney would be a “perfect” replacement for him, and Romney associates said a campaign has been under discussion. On Tuesday, Hatch did not dwell on a successor, and Romney’s only public statement was to praise the departing incumbent.
“I join the people of Utah in thanking my friend, Sen. Orrin Hatch, for his more than forty years of service to our great state and nation,” Romney said in a statement released on Facebook. “...Sen. Hatch has represented the interests of Utah with distinction and honor.”
Romney was elected governor of Massachusetts in 2002, and declined to run for a second term in order to gear up for his first run for president in 2008. He lost the nomination that year, won it four years later, and lost to President Obama.
He moved to Utah after his second presidential defeat, returning to the state where he helped rescue the foundering 2002 Winter Olympics. That effort and his family’s deep Mormon roots marked him as an honorary native. If he runs and wins, he’d be the first person since before the Civil War to have governed one state and represented a different one in the Senate.
“It’s Mitt Romney’s seat if he wants it,” said Tim Chambless, a political scientist at the University of Utah. “The question is: Does Mitt Romney want it?”
Chambless said he was somewhat skeptical given that Romney had gravitated mostly to executive roles in his business career and in politics.
“All his life he’s always been the boss, the manager, the administrator,” Chambless said. “Does he consider himself to be a legislator or to be the manager/administrator he always has been?”
A former Romney aide, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said that he expected Romney to run, but to delay an announcement for up to two weeks to allow time for organizing and to keep the immediate focus on Hatch.
One hint, however, came on Twitter a few hours after Hatch’s announcement: The line on Romney’s Twitter biography showing his location changed from Massachusetts to Utah.
If Romney were to decide not to run, two Republican members of Congress, Chris Stewart and Mia Love, have indicated they might consider the race. Democrat Jenny Wilson, a Salt Lake county commissioner and the daughter of a popular Salt Lake mayor, has been campaigning for the better part of a year.