Analysis: Will Orrin Hatch run for re-election?

One of the big political questions for 2017 is whether Sen. Orrin Hatch will seek re-election in 2018. Hatch could postpone his decision until next year, but that’s not likely. If he runs, he needs to gear up a campaign and scare off potential challengers, so an announcement could come at any time.

Hatch is one of the most powerful politicians in the country. He chairs the key Senate Finance Committee, is close to Pres. Donald Trump, and his clout in Washington is manifest in his leadership in the confirmation fight over Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch. He is the longest-serving Republican senator in U.S. history.

Hatch has influential friends in Washington and in Utah, can raise whatever campaign war chest he needs, has a sophisticated communications machine, and could have Trump campaigning for him in Utah, if needed.

All signs point to him running again. However, I don’t think it’s a done deal. Even some of Hatch’s closest friends want him to retire after 42 years – a long and amazing career. Despite being President pro tempore, despite his enormous clout, despite the good he can do for Utah, survey research shows that most Utahns want him to retire.

For most Utahns, it’s mostly a matter of overall Hatch fatigue, no real disrespect to the senator. Certainly, Hatch has his angry and vocal detractors. But at some point, every politician wears out his or her welcome even with ordinary voters. His approval rating is low, and when matched in polls head-to-head against prominent opponents, he doesn’t fare well.

As someone who watches politics closely, and has immense respect for Hatch and his influence in Washington, it’s surprising to me that so many Utahns are willing to give up Hatch’s clout and ability to help Utah in Washington. 

But that’s the way it is. Nearly everyone I chat with doesn’t want Hatch to run again. Thus, if he does run, even with his ability to mount a formidable campaign, it’s not a sure thing he will win. His biggest challenge will be claiming the Republican nomination. It’s pretty certain a number of Republicans will challenge him, both far right and mainstream candidates.

I’ve heard from sources close to Hatch that if he decides not to run he’d like to see one of three people replace him — either Mitt Romney, Congressman Chris Stewart, or Utah Valley University President Matt Holland.   

If Hatch runs, but appears vulnerable, it’s possible Republicans will coalesce around a candidate who can appeal to both conservative and mainstream voters — someone like Derek Miller, former chief of staff to Gov. Gary Herbert. That would be a preferred alternative to having Hatch lose to an ultra-conservative Republican, or even a moderate Democrat.

Whatever Hatch does, his place in history is secure. His legislative record is remarkable. He is the most successful and powerful politician in Utah’s history. He has made his mark on Utah and the country.