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Hatch exit opens door for Romney

Hatch exit opens door for Romney
© Greg Nash

Longtime Sen. Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchGOP leaders hesitant to challenge Trump on Saudi Arabia Congress should work with Trump and not 'cowboy' on Saudi Arabia, says GOP senator US to open trade talks with Japan, EU, UK MORE (R-Utah) announced on Tuesday that he would retire from the Senate, clearing the way for former presidential nominee Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyArizona Dems hope higher Latino turnout will help turn the state blue Trump changes tone on Saudi Arabia amid mounting pressure Election Countdown: Florida Senate fight resumes after hurricane | Cruz softens ObamaCare attacks | GOP worries Trump will lose suburban women | Latest Senate polls | Rep. Dave Brat gets Trump's 'total endorsement' | Dem candidates raise record B MORE to mount a political comeback and take the seat.

Hatch, whose 41 years in the Senate make him the longest currently serving senator, will step down after 2018.

Hatch’s decision immediately put the political spotlight on Romney, who remains highly popular in Utah and has become one of party’s most prominent critics of President TrumpDonald John TrumpThe Guardian slams Trump over comments about assault on reporter Five takeaways from the first North Dakota Senate debate Watchdog org: Tillerson used million in taxpayer funds to fly throughout US MORE

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Romney and establishment Republicans remained tight-lipped about a potential Senate bid immediately following Hatch’s retirement announcement, instead heaping praise on the 83-year-old senator.

“I join the people of Utah in thanking my friend, Senator Orrin Hatch for his more than forty years of service to our great state and nation,” Romney said in a statement posted to Facebook. “Ann and I wish Senator Orrin Hatch and his loving wife Elaine all the best in their future endeavors.”

But Romney, 70, is widely expected to run for the deep-red seat, marking a jump back to politics after returning to the private sector following his failed 2012 White House campaign. Romney late Tuesday afternoon switched his Twitter location to Holladay, Utah.

Tuesday’s announcement caps off months of speculation about a potential Romney bid, with allies of the former Massachusetts governor predicting he will likely enter the race now that Hatch has made his decision.

“Nothing is imminently going to be announced, but I do think he is likely to run,” said a longtime Romney supporter.

“There’s no big political roll-out that’s planned here. This all depended on what Sen. Hatch wanted to do. Gov. Romney has a tremendous amount of respect for the senator and he doesn’t want to do anything that would take away from his retirement announcement.”

Romney, a Mormon, first rose to prominence after he helped rehabilitate Salt Lake City’s 2002 Winter Olympic Games. He went on to serve as governor of Massachusetts from 2003 to 2007.

Romney won his party’s 2012 presidential nomination before losing to then-President Obama, picking up only 206 Electoral College votes.

Romney reentered the political fray in 2016, blasting then-candidate Trump as a “phony” and a “fraud.”

“His promises are as worthless as a degree from Trump University,” Romney said during an event at the Hinckley Institute.

The two appeared to be on friendlier terms when Trump reportedly considered Romney to be his secretary of State before picking Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonWatchdog org: Tillerson used million in taxpayer funds to fly throughout US Trump administration rigging the game, and your retirement fund could be the loser Haley’s exit sends shockwaves through Washington MORE. But they clashed again last month, when Romney condemned failed Alabama Senate candidate Roy MooreRoy Stewart MooreFormer campaign aide to New Jersey governor says she was sexually assaulted by his ex-staffer Mellman: When questions don’t mean what they say CNN's Toobin: It's Trump's ‘nature’ to not believe accusations of sexual assault MORE hours after Trump endorsed him.

Trump publicly urged Hatch to run for reelection, praising him during a speech in Salt Lake City in which he called the senator a “true fighter.”

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Tuesday that Trump is “very sad” that Hatch is retiring, and there are no decisions about future campaigning for the open-seat race.

When asked if the White House would back Romney if he runs, Sanders said that issue hasn’t come up yet with the president. Trump reportedly wanted to keep Hatch from retirement in an effort to block Romney from running.

“I haven’t had that conversation with him, and I think I would be prohibited from weighing in too far right now, given the Hatch Act, on who we might or might not support in that race,” she said, referring to a law that bars federal officials from using their offices to campaign for or against political candidates.

Republicans hope that Romney’s popularity in Utah could allow him to clear the primary field, avoiding another intraparty fight ahead of the 2018 midterm elections.

Sixty-nine percent of Utahns approve of Romney, according to a Utah Policy poll conducted last month, while Hatch received a 48 percent favorability rating.

Boyd Matheson, who was being recruited by former White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon, decided against a Senate bid. And Rep. Mia LoveLudmya (Mia) LoveRepublicans should prepare for Nancy Pelosi to wield the gavel Election Countdown: Dems outraise GOP in final stretch | 2018 midterms already most expensive in history | What to watch in second Cruz-O'Rourke debate | Trump raises 0M for reelection | Why Dems fear Avenatti's approach Poll: Republican Mia Love tied with Dem challenger in Utah House race MORE (R-Utah), who had been viewed as another potential candidate, was overheard last year saying Utah Republicans were “trying to get Mitt.”

Conservatives seized on Hatch’s announcement to lay down goalposts about who should replace him.

FreedomWorks, an outside group that opposed Romney during the 2012 presidential primary, blasted a release to reporters saying that a “conservative should run for Utah’s soon-to-be-open Senate seat.”

Bannon hasn’t hidden his disdain for the former presidential contender since leaving the White House.

While campaigning with Moore in Alabama last month, Bannon took a swing at Romney, saying he lacked “honor and integrity” and “hid behind [his] religion” to avoid serving in the Vietnam War, a reference to Romney’s missionary work in France in the late 1960s.

It’s unclear if other candidates will consider jumping into the race. The filing deadline for Hatch’s seat is March 15.

Former independent presidential candidate Evan McMullin in a tweet shortly after Hatch’s announcement said that he hoped that Romney would run for the seat. 

Establishment Republicans are expected to line up behind Romney if he gets into the race.

“He enjoys immense popularity in Utah, and I don’t foresee anybody giving him a serious challenge,” the Romney supporter said. “But he won’t take it for granted. It would be a serious campaign if it happens.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellOvernight Health Care — Presented by Purdue Pharma — Trump says GOP will support pre-existing condition protections | McConnell defends ObamaCare lawsuit | Dems raise new questions for HHS on child separations Poll finds Dems prioritize health care, GOP picks lower taxes when it's time to vote The Hill's 12:30 Report — Mnuchin won't attend Saudi conference | Pompeo advises giving Saudis 'few more days' to investigate | Trump threatens military action over caravan MORE (R-Ky.) told reporters last year that he has had “some conversations” with Romney. A spokesman for the Senate GOP leader declined to comment Tuesday when asked if the two men had spoken more recently.

Hatch has repeatedly pointed toward Romney, who ran unsuccessfully for Senate in Massachusetts in 1994, as someone he would like to see in the seat and told reporters the two had spoken about a potential Senate campaign if he decided to retire.

Sen. Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeSenators pledge action on Saudi journalist’s disappearance Bernie Sanders: US should pull out of war in Yemen if Saudis killed journalist Senators warn Trump that Saudi relationship is on the line MORE (R-Utah), who rode the Tea Party wave to Washington in 2010, defended Romney against Bannon’s criticisms, calling him a “good man” and saying, “You can’t credibly call into question his patriotism or moral character.”

Spokespeople for Lee didn’t respond to questions about if he would support Romney running for the Senate or get involved in a potential GOP primary race.

Salt Lake County Councilwoman Jenny Wilson is considered the front-runner in the Democratic primary, but a Democratic victory in the state would be a long shot: A Democrat hasn’t won a Senate seat in Utah in nearly 50 years.

Ben Kamisar and Jordan Fabian contributed.