Orrin Hatch, Utah’s longest-serving senator, ‘never shied from a challenge,’ Biden says

The Republican stalwart died in Salt Lake City surrounded by his family, his office said.

(André Chung | Special to The Tribune) Sen. Orrin Hatch in his Washington D.C. office in 2017. Hatch, Utah’s longest-serving senator, has died at 88, his office announced Saturday.

A lawyer and a lyricist, a presidential candidate and an amateur boxer. Orrin Hatch was many things, but he’ll be most remembered as a seven-term U.S. senator and Utah’s political godfather, starting or furthering the careers of generations of Republicans.

In a statement released Sunday, President Joe Biden reflected that in their three decades together in the Senate, he came to know Hatch as “the fighter who carried with him the memory of his humble upbringing near Pittsburgh, who never humored a bully, or shied from a challenge.”

Biden remembers Hatch as the “senator who sprinted from meeting to meeting because there was too much to do. ...” Referring to the longest serving Republican senator as “sharp-elbowed,” Biden also called Hatch a man of “deep faith” who possessed a “gentle soul.”

“This was the Orrin who looked out for the people who often didn’t have a voice in our laws and our country,” continued Biden’s statement. “I saw this in his efforts to pass the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Children’s Health Insurance Program.”

Indeed, though a well-known conservative, he had a reputation for negotiating bipartisan deals on major legislation, often involving health care and taxes, and for championing religious liberties, with an eye toward his Latter-day Saint faith, which he wore on his sleeve.

Hatch helped shape the Supreme Court, embraced President Donald Trump, and pushed Mitt Romney, a former Republican presidential candidate, to replace him when he finally called it quits after 42 years in office.

Hatch died Saturday in Salt Lake City surrounded by family members. He was 88. He leaves behind his wife, Elaine, his six children and dozens of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

His Senate career spanned from 1977 to 2019, longer than any other Republican in the nation’s history (Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina served longer but began his career as a Democrat). He concluded his career as the most senior Republican and the Senate president pro tempore, a largely honorary title that made him third in line for the presidency. His colleagues passed legislation to name the federal courthouse in Salt Lake City after him and just weeks before the end of his Senate service, Trump bestowed upon him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

“For the last 42 years, Senator Hatch has proudly represented the people of Utah, sponsoring more bills that have become law than any living legislator,” Trump said. “From rewriting our tax code to helping just hardworking Americans get through life to reshaping our courts to uphold the vision of our founders to protecting the religious freedom of all Americans, his achievements are too numerous to count. Senator Hatch is a true American statesman.”

(The Salt Lake Tribune) Ronald Reagan and Orrin Hatch in 1976.

His political rise

Hatch was born March 22, 1934, and grew up in Pittsburgh, the son of a metal lather. His family home lacked indoor plumbing and Hatch’s childhood job was to tend the chicken coop. A skinny yet competitive young man, he participated in 11 amateur boxing matches and was captain of his high school basketball team. He was the first in his family to go to college, attending Brigham Young University. He’d return to his parent’s house and turn that coop into a makeshift home where he slept as he attended the University of Pittsburgh Law School. While going to school, he worked as a janitor and a lather, joining a union as he plied the trade.

Hatch moved to Utah in 1969, where he set up a successful legal practice and a side company making cassette tapes on religious and legal topics.

He shocked his business partner, Walt Plumb, family and friends when he decided to run for the Senate in 1976 as a political unknown. He said Elaine cried for three days and his friends in his Latter-day Saint congregation tried to talk him out of it. At age 42, he joined four other Republicans hoping to take on Sen. Frank Moss, a leading three-term Democrat. The group included a former congressman, experienced federal bureaucrats and a lobbyist.

Plumb said Hatch “felt like God wanted him to run,” though Hatch refused to put it that way. Rather, he recalled, “I knew it was the right thing to do.”

Hatch ran as a right-wing candidate, securing the support of Cleon Skousen, a former FBI agent and ex-Salt Lake City police chief, who was a major figure in the John Birch Society. His courtroom experience made Hatch a polished public speaker, and he reached Republican delegates by mailing them a cassette tape of his stump speech, which at the time was a revolutionary campaign tactic.

It worked. He made it through to the primary, where he bested Jack Carlson, the establishment candidate backed by Sen. Jake Garn. Hatch locked up the support of popular California Gov. Ronald Reagan years before the latter went on to become president.

Moss expected a relatively easy reelection campaign and was ill-equipped to battle the aggressive Hatch. (In the campaign, Hatch quipped: “What do you call an 18-year incumbent?” referring to Moss. “You call him home.”) Riding a conservative wave that would soon transform Utah, Hatch secured 54% of the vote and in the process unseated the last Democrat to represent Utah in the Senate. He’d never be in a closer Senate race again.

His unexpected victory drew national attention. He even started receiving buzz as a potential presidential candidate. Hatch would wait until 2000 to make a long-shot bid for the Oval Office, running a “Skinny Cat” campaign, never breaking into the top tier of candidates in a loaded field. Texas Gov. George W. Bush eventually emerged victorious.

In his early years in the Senate, Hatch was seen as a right-wing brawler, fighting for a balanced-budget amendment and laws undermining labor unions. He didn’t earn his deal-making reputation until he struck up a friendship with a liberal lion, late Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy. Known as the “Odd Couple” in Washington, they teamed to pass the Children’s Health Insurance Program, the first research bill on AIDS and the Americans with Disability Act.

(John Duricka | AP) Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, left, and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., do some finger-pointing before a press conference at the Capitol in Washington, June 11, 1981.

When Kennedy was dying of brain cancer in 2009, he joined with Hatch one last time and passed a bill expanding federal volunteer programs. To honor his friend, Hatch co-wrote a song, called “Heading Home,” that included the lyrics: “Through the rain and fog, we can find a clear day, shoo the shadows and doubts away, and touch the legacy that is ours.”

The lobby of Hatch’s Senate office included framed gold and platinum records, where songs he co-wrote appeared on Christian pop music compilations. In 2005, he made $39,000 in royalties and continued to collect smaller amounts for years. He also played himself in a few television shows, such as “Parks and Recreation” in 2015 and movies, including “Traffic” in 2000.

His legislative record

Hatch served as the chairman of three major Senate committees — Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, then Judiciary, where he played a major role in framing the Supreme Court and, finally, Finance, a perch that allowed him to combat the Affordable Care Act and push through a major tax overhaul during his last term in office.

He also was widely viewed as the architect for the law that loosely regulates dietary supplement companies, a major industry in Utah.

Along with Kennedy, Hatch pushed Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). The program, one of the largest expansion of America’s social safety net since Medicaid, was designed to give states money to provide health insurance for children whose families made too much money to qualify for Medicaid but not enough to buy their own insurance. It was later expanded as part of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, which Hatch vehemently opposed.

He was the main sponsor of a bill protecting a religion’s right to build a church facility on private property and later championed a bill that instituted strict scrutiny of federal laws that may violate religious freedoms.

His last major piece of legislation was a package of tax cuts, the most sweeping in three decades, that were championed by Trump. The bill lowered individual rates for all income levels and capped the corporate rate at 21%,

The Center for Effective Lawmaking named Hatch the “most effective in the Senate” in 2017, and colleagues extolled the senator.

“Orrin Hatch has consistently maintained a demeanor that represented the Senate well — and that is an understatement — over the course of his illustrious and record-setting 42-year career,” said Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan. “As a matter of fact, I think the definition of ‘gentleman’ in the new edition of Webster’s dictionary simply lists two words: ‘Orrin Hatch.’”

Sen. Patrick Leahy, a veteran Vermont Democrat who often disagreed with Hatch, said the Utah Republican was a great friend.

“Sen. Hatch has shown a commitment to his beliefs,” Leahy said. “As both a chairman and ranking member of the Judiciary Committee during my tenures in both posts, we have had more than one occasion to partner, to spar and to share a laugh.

“He will be remembered here in the Senate,” Leahy added, “as a respected colleague.”

During his tenure, Hatch cast 14,554 votes, more than all but five senators in the nation’s history.

He has said he regrets a few of those votes, not the least of which was opposing the creation of Martin Luther King Day in 1983. That vote, Hatch said, was “one of the worst decisions I have made as a senator,” and he chalked it up to his focus on King’s economic ideas rather than the importance of celebrating King’s role in civil rights.

Hatch’s former aides and supporters are spread widely through the state’s political and business circles. As just one example, Sen. Mike Lee once served as Hatch’s Senate page as a high schooler. Lee came into office during the tea party wave of 2010, ushering in an era of more combative politics and disdain for deal-making. Hatch spent $10 million recruiting new Republican delegates in 2012 in a bid to hold on to his seat, which he did. In that race, Hatch indicated he wouldn’t run again.

Saying goodbye

(Manuel Balce Ceneta | AP) President Donald Trump presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House, in Washington, on Friday, Nov. 16, 2018.

The strength of Trump’s unconventional presidential campaign took many established politicians by surprise. In that 2016 contest, Hatch initially backed Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, then he supported Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. Finally, Hatch endorsed Trump. But after the race, the two grew close.

While giving him the Medal of Freedom, Trump said of Hatch: “He liked me right from the beginning and therefore I like him. That’s the way it is. I’m not supposed to say it, but that’s the way life goes.”

Hatch once said Trump could be one of the best presidents ever.

The senator also was one of the fiercest protectors of Trump’s Supreme Court picks, particularly Brett Kavanaugh, who faced allegations of sexual misconduct before he was confirmed in 50-48 vote.

Tracking Hatch’s role in crafting the Supreme Court is illustrative of the changing Senate, where votes have become more frequently drawn along party lines. When President Bill Clinton was in office, Hatch not only voted for the Democrat’s Supreme Court picks, but also suggested that Clinton nominate Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. But by the time President Barack Obama was in office, Hatch opposed his nominees, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, though neither faced any scandal.

In his later years in the Senate, Hatch lost much of his deal-making persona.

Jim Manley, a former top aide to Kennedy, said the Hatch of yesteryear had vanished.

“I’m not so sure that Sen. Hatch, my former boss Sen. Kennedy worked with on the Children’s Health Insurance Program, for instance, exists anymore,” Manley said. “I mean, as far as I’m concerned, no one epitomizes the rightward lurch of the Republican Party more than Sen. Hatch. He is, after all, someone who prided himself for years on his ability to fight like hell and reach a compromise with Democrats. But in recent years that guy is nowhere to be found.”

And yet at the same time, Hatch, in his farewell speech on the Senate floor, lamented the political hardening of the country, while maintaining that his Senate service had been the honor of his life.

“No matter how often I come to speak at this lectern, I experience that feeling — again and again,” Hatch said. “But today, if I’m being honest, I also feel sadness. Indeed, my heart is heavy. It aches for the times when we actually lived up to our reputation as the world’s greatest deliberative body. It longs for the days in which Democrats and Republicans would meet on middle ground rather than retreat to partisan trenches.”

An eye toward the future

As the Senate and American politics changed, so did Hatch. He was among the first senators to use an iPad on the Senate floor and when social media became a major way to reach the public, he went all-in.

Hatch’s team turned to social media and videos to promote the senator’s work, often poking fun at his age — noting, for example, that one of the most successful people Hatch has ever met was George Washington — and making a joke of the moment, captured on video, when the senator tried to remove eyeglasses even though he wasn’t wearing eyeglasses at the time.

Leaving the Senate wasn’t easy for Hatch. When he called it quits, he’d spent half his life in office and even after saying he wouldn’t run again in 2012, he flirted with it well into the 2018 election cycle.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sen. Orrin Hatch and Mitt Romney, when Romney was running for president on Friday, June 8, 2012.

Eventually, he stuck with his pledge but found it was easier to leave when he had a good idea of who would replace him. Hatch handed Romney, the former 2012 Republican nominee and a hero in Utah for his leadership of the 2002 Winter Olympics, a letter outlining the reasons Hatch thought he should run for the Senate.

Romney did just that and found little resistance.

No longer an elected official, Hatch continued to split his time between Washington and Salt Lake City, creating the Hatch Center and partnering with the University of Utah as a place to house his extensive papers. The center, which seeks to be a place to train future political leaders, has also held public policy events on topics close to the senator, such as religious freedom. In 2021, Hatch received the Canterbury bide for his work on that topic.

The center was intended to further Hatch’s influence far after his death, a sign that Utah’s political godfather may remain relevant for decades to come.

— Tribune reporter Luke Peterson and columnist Robert Gehrke contributed to this article.