Should he seek re-election next year, Sen. Orrin Hatch could potentially face a far-right challenger financed by former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, who is hunting for Trump devotees to unseat several Senate Republicans.
The question is: Will it work?
“There’s a mini-drama that we’re looking at right now,” said Tim Chambless, a political science professor at the University of Utah.
Since leaving President Donald Trump’s administration in August, Bannon made a quick return to the ultra-conservative Breitbart News, where he has promoted his nationalist agenda and supported firebrand candidates. That includes the outspoken Roy Moore, who last month beat out Sen. Luther Strange of Alabama, who Trump supported, in the GOP primary.
And there’s a list of at least 15 other races Bannon intends to target, part of an expanded effort to unseat longtime incumbents and oust Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell that was first reported by CNN.
Hatch, R-Utah, currently the longest serving GOP senator, has been in office for slightly more than 40 years. He says he’ll decide by the end of the year whether to seek an eighth term.
In some ways, he is an unlikely target for Bannon’s wrath. The 83-year-old conservative lawmaker has backed Trump since he was the GOP nominee in the 2016 presidential race — though he supported Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz before that — and has continued to back him while in office, defending the president consistently.
“As late as a week ago, the president was talking with Hatch and encouraging him to run again. It’s obvious that Bannon isn’t speaking for the president on this,” said Dave Hansen, who coordinated the senator’s 2012 bid and came back onto his payroll this year as a political consultant.
Hatch, too, has more than $4 million in his campaign account.
“Should he decide to run again, he will win,” said the senator’s spokesman, Matt Whitlock, in a statement Sunday night following reports on Bannon’s plan.
No Utah Republican has announced a challenge against Hatch yet, but Bannon’s potential support could nudge a tea party-esque candidate to get into the race. Chambless suggested former state Sens. Steve Urquhart and Dan Liljenquist, as well as current state Reps. LaVar Christensen and Mike Noel as possibilities. Others proposed state Rep. Dan McCay.
“Politics is funny and that’s really funny,” Urquhart said. “No, I can’t stand Steve Bannon and anything and everything that he stands for. If he were to contact me, that would be a very short conversation.”
“I’m not running for sure,” added Liljenquist, who lost to Hatch in the 2012 primary.
Noel responded first with laughter, but then started sounding like a potential candidate. He said it would “be crazy” if Bannon funded him, though “he knows I’m a lot like Trump. … Win or lose, I’m going to tell it like it is.”
The state lawmaker has built his career on fighting with environmentalists and challenging federal land management. He was considered, but ultimately not appointed, to lead the BLM under Trump.
“I don’t think Orrin is going to run, myself. If he didn’t run and I’ve got a guy like Bannon, I’d really like to get the issues out that I don’t think people talk about a lot.”
For Noel, that includes getting rid of “arcane rules” in the Senate on voting procedures and filibusters — a position that Bannon is supposedly looking for in choosing challengers to support.
Sutherland Institute President Boyd Matheson, a former chief of staff of Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, is also considering a run. He said Monday: “I really think 2018 is going to be a forum on the future of the Republican Party.”
Still, it’s disputable whether any success would come from Bannon’s maneuvering in Utah.
The state’s Republican Party Chairman Rob Anderson contends that it’s “ridiculous” to expect Bannon to swing Utah’s 2018 Senate race. “Who does this guy think he is? He doesn’t know Utah. He’s offended most of Utah based on religious slurs,” he said, referencing Bannon’s previous criticisms of Mormons.
Hatch has continued to weigh another run for office, though he said his 2012 bid would be his last. As the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, he remarked during a recent tele-town hall, “I’m in a position where nobody dumps on Utah.”
“I never did say absolutely that I would not run again,” the senator said. “And who knows what I’m going to do.”
His health and that of his wife, he has noted, will also be a factor.
In an August poll from The Salt Lake Tribune and the U.’s Hinckley Institute of Politics nearly 8-in-10 registered voters indicated that Hatch shouldn’t seek re-election in 2018.
“The biggest obstacle he has to overcome is not whether Bannon has someone running against him. It’s his longevity in the Senate. That’s the only hurdle Sen. Hatch has to overcome himself,” said James Evans, the previous state Republican Party chairman.
FreedomWorks spent nearly $800,000 trying to beat Hatch at the 2012 Republican convention. It was not successful.
Russ Walker, the former national political director for the Washington, D.C.-based group, said this time could be different. There are “plenty” of state lawmakers and city mayors, he believes, who “would do a better job representing the state than Orrin,” particularly if they had Bannon‘s help.
“I think he has a better opportunity today than there’s ever been before to replace Orrin Hatch with a fiscal conservative,” Walker said. “I don’t think it’s going to take much. I think you’re just going to have to have a good candidate emerge.”
In 2012, Hatch promised to pass a balanced budget and that won over many Utah voters, Walker suggested. Now, he said, “they all remember the promise that he’s not going to run again.”
Chambless, for his part, strongly suspects that Hatch will not seek re-election anyway. But no Republican has taken strong steps to run for the seat.
Utah Rep. Chris Stewart has said he would campaign only if Hatch stepped down. And Mitt Romney, the 2012 GOP presidential nominee, has refused to comment when asked about rumors that he’d be interested if Hatch decided to retire. If he did decide to jump in, The New York Times reported that Bannon does not intend to let Romney run without a challenge.