When Donald Trump bops into town to roll back protections on about 2 million acres of Utah land, you can bet Sen. Orrin Hatch will be standing there grinning and probably getting a nice shout-out from the president.
It could be the opening chords of Hatch’s Senate swan song as he finally nears the end of his 42-year tenure. But I think it’s more likely to be the kickoff of his 2018 re-election bid.
Hatch has set himself up well for yet another run, playing what I call the “Of Mice and Men” strategy to perfection. Remember, the John Steinbeck novel, where the much stronger Lenny acts as the physical protector for the weaker George?
Hatch is George.
The senator’s atrocious poll numbers, where three out of four Utah voters want him to retire, make him vulnerable to a challenge, especially within his party. So to scare off would-be predators, he turns to Lenny — in this case Mitt Romney — to act as his bouncer and keep people out of the race.
And it’s worked like a charm. Every possible candidate has been frozen out, afraid to tangle with Lenny.
Other potential contenders were taken off the playing field. Jon Huntsman is now ambassador to Russia and Matthew Holland, whose name had been floated, is off to serve as a Mormon mission president. Convenient, right?
The thing is, we know how things ended for Lenny and it’s entirely possible that Hatch ends up giving Romney similar treatment. Because even though he told us last time around that he wouldn’t seek another term, Hatch is running until he says he’s not.
“I’m planning on running again because I still have the chairmanship of the Finance Committee and there’ll never be another Utahn that’s chairman of the committee, at least not for 40 or 50 years,” Hatch told The Wall Street Journal recently, echoing earlier remarks he’s made.
And he’s right. Walking away from the Finance Committee chairmanship that took him decades to get, not to mention president pro tempore of the Senate, third in line to succeed the president, isn’t easy.
Meantime, he’s doing all the things a candidate would do. His big annual ski fundraiser is once again scheduled for early January, and he’s asking for $10,000 from political action committees and $5,000 from individuals to attend. That would be added to the $5.4 million in the bank between his campaign account and his PAC.
And he’s been spending it, pouring out more than $5 million on things like fundraising and consultants and mailers. You will no doubt be receiving a glossy flyer touting Trump’s action to shrink Bears Ears any day now, featuring this quote from the president: “I’m approving the Bears Ears recommendation for you, Orrin.”
The conventional wisdom, from smart, well-connected people from both the Hatch and Romney camps, is that the deal is done and Hatch won’t run again. His eyesight is failing and his health is what you’d expect for an octogenarian, as is the health of his wife, Elaine (who, by the way, deserves a commendation of some sort for putting up with four decades of being a Senate spouse).
Preparations are nearly complete for the creation of the Orrin Hatch center, a multimillion-dollar venture in downtown Salt Lake City that could provide a soft landing for the state’s longest-serving politician.
Romney is, no question, preparing to run and getting antsy for Hatch to decide. His top political advisers were in Utah recently holding strategy meetings and scouting locations for a campaign headquarters.
But what is in it for Mitt? If he runs and wins, he would be the junior senator at age 71. By the time he gets anywhere near a committee chairmanship, he’ll be two terms in and the same age Hatch is now.
People who think Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., will leapfrog him over more senior members don’t get Washington. In 2009, Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter switched parties and Nevada’s Harry Reid, the Democratic leader, nearly sparked a riot when he tried to give the 28-year veteran special consideration.
And how does Sen. Romney benefit Utah? He has punched Trump in the mouth publicly at every opportunity and Trump humiliated him by pulling the secretary of state football away like Mitt was poor Charlie Brown. Is that relationship going to serve Utah well when the state needs favors from the White House?
If Romney wants to be a player, he should fire up his billion-dollar Rolodex, form a super PAC and take on Steve Bannon and fight for the values he thinks the Republican Party should espouse. He can use his bully pulpit and experience more effectively on the outside than as the littlest fish in the Senate food chain.
The wild card in all this is the fate of the truly awful tax bill Hatch is now trying to muscle through Congress. If he can get it to Trump’s desk by Christmas, and the Utah monuments are a done deal, maybe then he rides off into the sunset.
Maybe. I think there’s better than a 50-50 chance that the tax negotiations drag on and, in the end, Hatch, citing encouragement from Trump and the short window for other candidates to get into the race, says he’s going to run. What choice could he have?
Now, with his poll numbers in the toilet, can he win? Well, that’s a topic for a later column.
Editor’s note: Ambassador Jon Huntsman’s brother Paul Huntsman is the owner and publisher of The Salt Lake Tribune.