All eyes on Sen. Hatch as he weighs reelection bid

The political spotlight is shifting to longtime Sen. Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchSenators introduce bipartisan bill to improve IRS Senate panel advances Trump IRS nominee Don't place all your hopes — or fears — on a new Supreme Court justice MORE (R-Utah) as he considers whether to run for reelection in 2018.

Hatch’s office has repeatedly said he'll make a decision by the end of the year, but he still has several months to make up his mind before the March 15 filing deadline.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpNFL freezes policy barring players from protesting during anthem McConnell spokesman on Putin visit: 'There is no invitation from Congress' Petition urges University of Virginia not to hire Marc Short MORE and some of his allies are urging Hatch to run for an eighth term. They have showered praise on the powerful Senate Finance Committee chairman for helping to shepherd the GOP’s tax overhaul through the upper chamber.

While Hatch had promised that this term would be his last, in recent weeks he has signaled a reelection run is likely.

“I’m planning on running again because I still have the chairmanship of the Finance Committee and they’ll never be another Utahn that’s chairman of the committee, at least not for 40 or 50 years,” he told The Wall Street Journal in November.

But Hatch, the longest-serving GOP senator in U.S. history, is under pressure to call it quits from within his home state.

The Salt Lake Tribune, Utah’s largest newspaper, published a scathing editorial on Christmas Day calling on Hatch, 83, to retire. If he runs, the paper’s editorial board wrote, voters should throw their support behind someone new.

The editorial mockingly named him “Utahn of the Year,” citing Hatch’s major role in the passage of tax reform as well as the White House’s decision to shrink two national monuments in Utah. The board wrote that Hatch has an “utter lack of integrity” that comes from “his unquenchable thirst for power.”

“It would be good for Utah if Hatch, having finally caught the Great White Whale of tax reform, were to call it a career. If he doesn’t, the voters should end it for him,” the editorial board wrote.

Utahns do appear eager for a fresh face in the Senate, as a poll from August found that more than three-quarters of voters want Hatch to retire. 

Much of the intrigue surrounding Hatch’s decision is centered on Mitt Romney, who reportedly plans to run for the seat if Hatch retires.

If Hatch retires, Romney would become the immediate front-runner and would be expected to clear the field for the seat. 

Earlier this year, Hatch told National Journal in an interview that he’s “expressed interest” to Romney about him running for the seat if he were to retire. Other GOP leaders like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellMcConnell spokesman on Putin visit: 'There is no invitation from Congress' Overnight Defense: Trump inviting Putin to DC | Senate to vote Monday on VA pick | Graham open to US-Russia military coordination in Syria Senate to vote Monday on Trump's VA nominee MORE (R-Ky.) have reportedly spoken to Romney about a potential bid.

Romney, a Mormon, has strong ties to Utah, dating back to when he helped lead the 2002 Olympic Games in Salt Lake City. The former Massachusetts governor won the state with nearly 73 percent of the vote during his presidential run in 2012 and would be the odd-on favorite to win the seat if he were in the race. 

“I haven’t spoken directly to the governor about his intentions, but I do think he maintains a desire to serve the public. I think if an opportunity arose he would seriously consider it,” Ryan Williams, a former aide to Romney’s presidential campaign, told The Hill.

But Williams believes Romney wouldn’t enter the political arena again unless Hatch steps aside.

“Gov. Romney always had a great deal of respect for Sen. Hatch and I wouldn’t expect him to consider a race if the senator decided to seek reelection, but that’s an open question, and only Sen. Hatch knows the answer to it.”

But Politico reported earlier this month that Trump is eager to keep Romney out of the Senate and is trying to convince Hatch to run again.

During a speech in Salt Lake City in early December, Trump heaped praise on Hatch, calling him “a true fighter.”

Hatch returned the praise at a White House event celebrating passage of the tax law

“We're going to make this the greatest presidency that we've seen, not only in generations, but maybe ever,” Hatch said. 

Trump and Romney have had a contentious relationship over the years. Romney waged a public campaign to stop Trump’s nomination in 2016. In one speech, he called Trump a “phony” and a “fraud.”

More recently, Romney denounced failed Alabama Senate candidate Roy MooreRoy Stewart MooreRoby wins Alabama GOP runoff, overcoming blowback from Trump criticism Once a Trump critic, Ala. rep faces runoff with his support Doug Jones walks tightrope on Supreme Court nominee MORE hours after Trump endorsed him.

Asked earlier this month whether he was trying to prevent Romney from filling Hatch’s seat, Trump dodged the question.

"He's a good man. Mitt's a good man,” he said.

While the two have publicly clashed, Trump did consider Romney for secretary of State, though the job ultimately went to Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonUS steps up its game in Africa, a continent open for business Matt Drudge shares mock ‘Survivor’ cover suggesting more White House officials will leave this summer 'Daily Show' trolls Trump over Pruitt's resignation MORE.

Some political observers in Utah say Hatch might be reexamining his political future because of his relationship with Trump. Hatch defended Trump amid the controversy surrounding the “Access Hollywood” tapes that surfaced in the lead-up to Election Day and has been highly complimentary of him, calling the president “one of the best I’ve served under.”

“He almost seems to have the president of the United States in his pocket,” said James Curry, an assistant professor at the University of Utah. “Hatch seems to be one of the few people who has figured this out. That if you publicly compliment Trump ... and work with him behind the scenes, you can get what you want out of him.”

Former White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon has also changed his tune about Hatch and wants him to run for reelection to stop Romney. 

Bannon had initially sought to recruit a challenger for Hatch’s seat, but his favored choice — Boyd Matheson, who is president of the conservative Utah think tank the Sutherland Institute — decided to forgo a Senate run

Bannon made clear his feelings about Romney during a campaign rally in Alabama earlier this month, where he accused Romney of “hiding behind his faith” to avoid military service during the Vietnam War. Hatch criticized Bannon for the remark.

If Hatch does run again, he’s expected to face a primary challenge.

Political observers in Utah said there are at least a handful of state legislators would could run against Hatch in the Republican primary, though Hatch would likely have the upper hand.

In Utah, a candidate needs to earn 60 percent of the vote at the statewide GOP convention in order to stave off a primary. While Hatch didn’t meet that threshold at the convention in 2012, he still easily defeated his primary opponent. 

Curry of the University of Utah believes another Republican candidate could give Hatch a tough run next year, especially given the calls for him to retire.

“I don’t expect any of them to beat him because Hatch ultimately is very good at this, but somebody in that group could give him a run for his money and could make it hard on him because there’s more support for anybody but Hatch now than there was six years ago,” Curry said.