Seven terms in the U.S. Senate will be all for Utah's Orrin Hatch, who said Tuesday he will not seek re-election this fall. If only he'd made the announcement a couple of weeks ago.
Hatch has denied repeated retirement rumors over the past several months, leading the Salt Lake Tribune to blast him last week in an editorial naming him its "Utahn of the Year." (If that seems a paradox, consider how the Tribune started its, ahem, tribute: "(L)est our readers, or the honoree himself, get the wrong impression, let us repeat the idea behind The Salt Lake Tribune's Utahn of the Year designation. ... this year, as many times in the past, The Tribune has assigned the label to the Utahn who, over the past 12 months, has done the most. Has made the most news. Has had the biggest impact. For good or for ill.")
Part of the newspaper's reasoning was what looked like a campaign promise in the breaking on Hatch's part:
"The last time the senator was up for re-election, in 2012, he promised that it would be his last campaign. That was enough for many likely successors, of both parties, to stand down, to let the elder statesman have his victory tour and to prepare to run for an open seat in 2018.
"Clearly, it was a lie. Over the years, Hatch stared down a generation or two of highly qualified political leaders who were fully qualified to take his place, Hatch is now moving to run for another term — it would be his eighth — in the Senate. Once again, Hatch has moved to freeze the field to make it nigh unto impossible for any number of would-be senators to so much as mount a credible challenge. That's not only not fair to all of those who were passed over. It is basically a theft from the Utah electorate."
Whether Hatch is responding to the criticism or planned not to seek re-election all along, it's a bad look for him. And perhaps a warning to others who don't understand three or four decades in Congress are more than enough.
But Hatch isn't the only story here. There has long been speculation that Mitt Romney could seek the seat, which sets up a potentially interesting election in a couple of ways. First is the tension between Romney and President Trump, whose relationship has been rocky at best. Trump's apparent consideration of Romney as his secretary of state doesn't seem to have smoothed things over. Utah is the one bright-red state where breaking with Trump might be an asset rather than a liability for a Republican candidate. It's even harder to imagine a Democrat winning there than it was in Alabama, though we know how that turned out. Romney all but certainly has nothing in his past like Roy Moore did — the vetting of him in 2012 would have brought that to light — but a primary against a full-throated Trump supporter could get ugly.
The other potential tension would be between Romney and liberals. While the Republican was berated in 2012 for things that seem quaint now ("binders full of women," the dog in the car-top carrier, etc.), he has earned the ol' Strange New Respect from the left for speaking out against Trump. Of course, Strange New Respect also tends to descend upon Republicans who stop seeking public office; they are, after all, no longer electoral threats to Democrats. It will be fascinating to see if that evolves into Strange New Disrespect should Romney get into the Utah Senate race.