Utah Republicans were convinced Orrin Hatch would lose if he ran again; the real inside story about Hatch’s decision to retire

Longtime U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch may have decided for personal reasons not to run again this year, but several GOP operatives believe the veteran politician – much respected in Washington, D.C., but in political trouble at home — could have been beaten in Utah.

UtahPolicy.com has talked to many local politicos since Hatch decided to retire, and they are unanimous on one subject: Hatch would likely be unseated if any number of Utah GOP officeholders were to challenge him.

The obvious one is Mitt Romney.

There would have been almost no chance Hatch could have beaten the Salt Lake Olympic-savior/2012 GOP presidential nominee, should Romney have challenged Hatch.

But that is not the only name UtahPolicy was told. Others likely to have been able to defeat Hatch in a primary election include:

— Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox.

Cox has rural ties that many conservative Republicans like. But he’s also a new generation of Utah Republicans, one who welcomes immigrant and gay issues and is seen as a bridge-builder.

— State House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper.

Hughes is seen as “a younger politician on the rise in this state,” as one operative told UtahPolicy.

— State Auditor John Dougall.

Dougall spends many of his weekends traveling the state, visiting with county GOP leaders and delegates. It’s a grassroots appeal that a number of traditional Republican candidates are bypassing, now that candidates can get on the ballot via voter signatures.

— There was also the possibility that a wealthy GOP businessman could have stepped forward. Perhaps not well-known to voters now, but over the spring months could have put together a campaign that could have defeated Hatch in a primary election.

UtahPolicy.com previously reported that Gov. Gary Herbert was mulling a run against Hatch, but wasn’t too serious about getting into the Senate race. But he was convinced that Hatch would lose a primary for the GOP nomination. His fear was an extreme far-right candidate would be able to attract money and support from fringe groups and super PACs and then mount a credible challenge to Hatch, who polls showed was vulnerable.

Sources tell UtahPolicy.com that Herbert urged either Lt. Gov. Cox or World Trade Center CEO Derek Miller to run for the Senate seat if Hatch decided he would not retire. Not only that, but Herbert made it known he would campaign for them, and against Hatch if it came to that. It’s almost unheard of to have a sitting governor campaigning against a seven-term sitting U.S. Senator from his own party, but Herbert was so sure that Hatch would lose if he ran again that he wanted to make sure another candidate who could win was ready to throw their hats into the ring.

If Hatch was so vulnerable, then it figures he decided not to run again because he saw the handwriting on the political wall?

Not so, says one politico close to the senator.

“It really was a personal decision he made; one partly based on his health,” said this person.

UtahPolicy reported earlier this year that Hatch’s eyesight was failing – something other media outlets have basically ignored.

This person said Hatch’s eyesight is even worse than reported – and it was impairing his ability to do his job as he has in the past.

When Hatch is at the top of his game these days, he can do the job well. But those days, or weeks, are getting further apart, our source added.

And most likely, had Hatch decided to seek re-election, at some point over the six-month campaign, “He would have had several ‘senior moments’.”

The first serious misstep – literally, if he stumbled or fell in a public setting – could be forgiven.

“But not the second.”

In fact, Hatch appeared to stumble when he was walking down the stairs of Air Force One as he disembarked in Salt Lake City during President Trump’s visit last month.

If Hatch seriously misspoke and/or stumbled or appeared feeble in public, that would be the end of the 83-year-old’s re-election campaign.

“And it probably would have happened, at some point, at some time,” this person said.

Did Hatch realize that Romney or any other the others mentioned could have beaten him?

“Probably not,” said another Hatch associate. The senator has been in office so long, it was inconceivable to him that after winning seven straight elections, he could have lost his eighth.

While Hatch certainly could have gotten on the June GOP primary ballot – spending $250,000 to gather the 28,000 signatures from GOP voters required — it is there he would have likely lost to one or two serious contenders – even if Romney were not in the race.

An opponent “would just run a campaign saying (Hatch) has been in office too long, promised not to run again (when he ran in 2012), and is too old,” said one politico.

There really is no answer for those arguments – they’re all true.

Hatch wasn’t playing games with Romney or others by his procrastination in announcing his intentions, several claimed.

“He really didn’t know if he would run again or not,” said one source.

While President Donald Trump and other D.C. players were asking Hatch to run, he came home to Salt Lake over the holidays, talked to family and friends, and decided it was enough.

“I don’t think it was a political decision; it was a personal one,” another said.

But it was also a smart political decision.

There clearly were good Republicans – to Hatch’s right and those more mainstream – who were looking at the race and would have been able to beat him, UtahPolicy.com is being told.