Washington • Forty-one years to the day that he took office, Sen. Orrin Hatch walks into the Senate on Wednesday as a lame duck after announcing that he will retire in early 2019.
Hatch’s decision came despite the urging of Senate colleagues and President Donald Trump, who had pushed the Utah Republican to run for an eighth term, and despite a $4.7 million balance in his campaign account and a fundraiser scheduled this weekend.
Hatch said the time had come.
The move ends months of will-he-or-won’t-he speculation, and leaves an open seat that could be filled by former presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
“Every good fighter knows when to hang up the gloves,” the Republican senator said in a video released Tuesday by his office. “For me, that time is soon approaching. That’s why after much prayer and discussion with family and friends, I’ve decided to retire at the end of this term.”
Polls have shown that three-quarters of Utahns wanted Hatch, 83, to retire, though the senator had said he was listening to pleas from President Donald Trump, fellow senators and other Utah leaders in weighing another term. He said Tuesday that was not to be.
“Although I will miss serving you in the Senate, I look forward to spending more time with my family, especially my sweet wife, Elaine, whose unwavering love and support made all of this possible,” Hatch said.
The senator had said recently his wife had urged him not to run again.
Trump tweeted congratulations to Hatch “on an absolutely incredible career. He has been a tremendous supporter, and I will never forget the (beyond kind) statements he has made about me as President. He is my friend and he will be greatly missed in the U.S. Senate!”
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that the president thanked Hatch for his work to pass tax reform.
Asked if Trump would support former presidential candidate Mitt Romney if he ran for the seat, Sanders said that she had yet to have a conversation with the president about that and said she couldn’t comment further.
Romney had harsh criticism of Trump during the 2016 campaign, but later toned it down when he was briefly considered as a potential secretary of state in the Trump administration. Romney has continued to express views counter to the president’s on issues ranging from Roy Moore’s fitness to serve in the Senate to climate change.
Vice President Mike Pence thanked Hatch for his leadership and friendship, while Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the institution “will miss his talent, his productivity and his wisdom.”
Hatch, who began serving in office in 1977, had promised his 2012 bid for office would be his last, though he backtracked later, saying he may need to seek another term because of his position as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and as the eldest Republican, the Senate president pro tem, third in line for the presidency.
The veteran politician made his announcement on the first day Utahns could declare their intention to gather signatures to run for office. He has come under some criticism for delaying his decision so long.
Hatch’s retirement leaves an open seat that plenty of Utahns have been eyeing, not the least of whom is Romney, who lives in Holladay and has said he’s interested in running if Hatch isn’t. Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, has also expressed interest.
Romney posted on Facebook, thanking Hatch for his 40 years of service but not addressing whether he would run for the seat.
“As Chairman of the Senate Finance and Judiciary Committees and as the longest-serving Republican Senator in U.S. history, Senator Hatch has represented the interests of Utah with distinction and honor,” Romney posted Tuesday. My wife, “Ann and I wish Senator Orrin Hatch and his loving wife Elaine all the best in their future endeavors.”
Salt Lake County Councilwoman Jenny Wilson has declared her candidacy on the Democratic side.
“I know this has been a difficult decision for Senator Hatch,” Wilson said in a statement. “I believe this is the right decision for Utah and look forward to a vigorous campaign ahead as candidates enter the race.”
Hatch said that while he’ll finish out his remaining year in the Senate, he doesn’t plan to retire from the public eye.
“I may be leaving the Senate but the next chapter in my public service is just beginning,” Hatch said. “I want to thank you all for your support through these many years.”
His Senate colleague from Utah, Mike Lee, praised Hatch.
“Senator Hatch has been a tremendous servant to the people of Utah and he will be sorely missed,” Lee said in a statement. “It has truly been an honor serving with him in the United States Senate and I know he will continue to do fantastic work for the people of Utah.”
While Hatch didn’t disclose his future plans, friends and supporters have already begun to raise millions of dollars toward the Hatch Center, touted as not only an archive for Hatch’s official papers but a think tank and forum for future leaders.
Scott Anderson, the chief executive of Zions Bank who has headed up those efforts, said Tuesday that Hatch will now be able to devote more time to the center that will train the next generation of public servants and also allow Hatch to speak out on issues important to Utah and the nation.
“We will miss the senator in Washington,” Anderson said. “No one has done more for the state of Utah and for our country in the last three decades than Senator Hatch. We owe him a huge debt of gratitude and thanks for his sacrifice, for his service, and for his achievements.”
Anderson, who has been rumored to be considering a Senate bid himself, did not respond to a question of whether he would seek the seat.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert was serving as a Mormon missionary in Pittsburgh when he first met Hatch, then a lawyer working in Pennsylvania, in 1967. Now, roughly 50 years later, he’s sad to see the senator leave office.
“He’s kind of old school in trying to find compromise,” Herbert said, noting Hatch’s work on the Children’s Health Insurance Program with the late Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy. “I’ve observed his work and his work ethic. He is by all definitions a workaholic. … But time marches on for all of us, and change is inevitable.”
Rep. Mia Love, R-Utah, thanked Hatch for his friendship and guidance, in addition to his legislative legacy.
“Personally, I will miss his leadership, his guidance and the wonderful friendship he has given me. No Senator has accomplished more during his time in office than Senator Hatch, and our state and nation are better for it,“ she said in a statement.
Rep. Rob Bishop, who has served longer with Hatch than any of the other members of the delegation, described the senator as Utah’s “most successful politician. His influence can be felt by all Americans.”
Utah’s newest congressman, Rep. John Curtis, hailed Hatch for his effectiveness and dedication.
“Not only is Senator Hatch Utah’s longest serving U.S. Senator and the longest serving Republican Senator in U.S. history, he is also one of the most effective legislators of all time,” Curtis said. “I am grateful that we have had such a statesman on the front lines fighting for us for the past four decades.”
Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes said Hatch had served with dignity, honor and “grit.”
“The seat will be filled after the upcoming election but he will never be replaced,” Hughes said.
Utah GOP Chairman Rob Anderson said with his key role in the recently passed tax reform, the senator is “going out on top.”
— Reporter Courtney Tanner contributed to this story from Salt Lake City.