Utah Rep. Chris Stewart “absolutely” hopes his colleague and mentor Sen. Orrin Hatch, the longest-serving Republican senator in history, runs for re-election in 2018.

But if he doesn’t, Stewart said he plans to launch a bid for Hatch’s seat.

“If he chooses not to run — and he’s indicated that he probably will — but if he were to change his mind and not run, then I believe that we would,” Stewart told The Salt Lake Tribune editorial board Wednesday morning.

“The senator ... hasn‘t made a final decision about a campaign that’s more than a year away.”

Matt Whitlock, Hatch spokesman

When first asked if he was eyeing a possible campaign for the Senate, the conservative lawmaker hesitated.

“How should I answer that?” Stewart asked his chief of staff with a grin.

“I don’t know,” Brian Steed responded, laughing a little.

“Honestly, openly, truthfully and on the record,” prodded Tribune Editor Jennifer Napier-Pearce.

Before declaring that he would, in fact, seek the Senate seat if the seven-term incumbent stepped aside — his strongest statement yet — Stewart extolled his “dear friend” Hatch and vowed to campaign for him.

“If he ran again, I would absolutely support him,” he said, later adding: “Utah will lose certain stature without Sen. Hatch. His position and the respect that he carries has been beneficial to our state.”

Hatch, 83, said in April that he intends to run for an eighth term in office — though he added that a formal decision wouldn’t come until later this year and would depend on certain circumstances, including if his or his wife’s health deteriorated.

“Right now, yes, I’m going to run,” Hatch told KUTV, though he clarified that he may take that back if “my wife gets sick, or I get sick, or something like that.”

In March, the senator had indicated that he might be willing to step down if Mitt Romney decided to run. Hatch described the former presidential candidate as the “perfect” successor, though Romney hasn’t commented on the mention.

The senator, first elected in 1976, said during his 2012 bid that he wouldn’t run again, but he has since reconsidered. Hatch’s spokesman, Matt Whitlock, said Wednesday that the senator has ”great respect for Congressman Stewart and his dedicated representation in Utah’s 2nd District,” though he’s still weighing another bid for office.

“The senator is focused on a busy legislative agenda and hasn’t made a final decision about a campaign that’s more than a year away,” Whitlock added. 

A large majority of Utahns, however, do not want him to seek another term in office. Nearly eight in 10 surveyed registered voters said Hatch should not run for re-election, according to a Tribune-Hinckley Institute of Politics poll conducted in July.

“If Hatch decides not to run, the list of candidates grows immediately,” said Hinckley Institute Director Jason Perry. ”There are several people who have campaign machines already running.”

Stewart, who took office in 2013, would be “a very strong candidate,” Perry added, though other possible contenders could be challenging opponents for the congressman. A few have been ”putting out feelers” for campaigns, while there are others ”the community is talking about.” Perry‘s speculation includes Derek Miller, president of World Trade Center Utah; Josh Romney, son of Mitt Romney; Boyd Matheson, president of the Sutherland Institute; Matthew Holland, president of Utah Valley University; and Greg Miller, son of the late Larry H. Miller. 

Many more Republicans are sure to jump in if Hatch steps aside. Salt Lake County Councilwoman Jenny Wilson, a Democrat, has announced that she will run.