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Congressman Chris Stewart acknowledged one of the worst-kept secrets in Utah politics on Wednesday when he said he was interested in running for the U.S. Senate next year if Sen. Orrin Hatch decides to retire.

Stewart may not be Hatch’s top choice to replace him if he doesn’t run – but Stewart is at least on the short list. 

I’ve heard some people close to Hatch say that if he’s keeping the seat warm for someone else, his top choice is Mitt Romney, followed by Utah Valley University President Matt Holland, with Stewart coming in third.

So the bigger intrigue is first, whether Hatch will retire, and then whether Romney or Holland would run. These are becoming very pressing questions because we’re late in the cycle for a U.S. Senate race. Most other 2018 races across the country have been underway for months. Hatch has managed to freeze everyone out as potential competitors await his decision.

It’s almost to the point now that for anyone to mount a successful campaign, they would need to be wealthy or famous or both.

My best guess is that Hatch will retire. The combination of age, health, and a decidedly unenthusiastic Utah electorate (to put it kindly) toward him running again will be enough for Utah’s greatest-ever member of Congress to call it a day. He will be praised and honored far and wide, deservedly so.

Hatch has all but said he wouldn't run again if Romney runs. I have no idea if Romney will. On the one hand, Romney seems to be bored and wanting some action. He periodically jumps in on political issues. Romney would immediately be a leader with real credibility in the Senate. But he’s also getting older, and he may be thinking it’s time for the next generation to step up, like son Josh Romney, a possible gubernatorial candidate in 2020.

It would be a bit much for Mitt Romney to be a U.S. senator and for his son to run for governor.

And then there’s Matt Holland. I’ve had a few personal conversations that lead me to believe that Holland has some political ambitions. And if one is ambitious politically, an opportunity like this only comes around once in a lifetime. Very seldom is there an open U.S. Senate seat.

Holland is enormously smart and capable. He’s charismatic and engenders loyalty. He likes public policy and would immediately demonstrate his intellectual and policy chops. But does he have the kind of ego and drive, the fire in the belly, required at top national political levels? Would he deal well with the rough-and-tumble and sometimes sheer nastiness and negativity associated with high-level politics? Could he handle personal attacks and the glare of publicity that would fall upon him and his family, including his father, a high-ranking LDS Church leader?

Holland is clearly an up-and-comer. He could become president of a major university or a major corporation. Being a U.S. senator for a term or two wouldn’t hurt those prospects. An opportunity like this might never come along again.

Chris Stewart knows what life is like in Congress and he obviously enjoys it. He may not be a superstar, but he would be a very good senator who would represent Utah well and try to be a problem-solver, not a showboat. Hatch obviously thinks a great deal of him.

So those are Hatch’s favorites if he chooses not to run. Any of them could quickly mount a viable campaign, although it would be harder for Holland. He’d have to pull in some veteran campaign people on short notice.

It gets harder for those not on Hatch’s list. Derek Miller, who leads World Trade Center Utah and has had excellent experience as Gov. Herbert’s chief of staff and in economic development jobs, is a terrific prospect who would be a superb senator. But unless he was able to clear the field, it would be difficult – although not impossible -- for him to raise a few million dollars to be viable and then a lot more to win.

The longer Hatch keeps the field frozen, the harder it will be for anyone not on his chosen list to mount a viable campaign.