Sen. Hatch retiring, opening door to Romney

WASHINGTON — Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah said Tuesday he will not seek re-election after serving more than 40 years in the Senate, opening the door for former GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney to run for his seat.

Hatch, 83, said he’s always been a fighter, “but every good fighter knows when to hang up the gloves.”

Hatch is the longest-serving Republican in the Senate. He chairs the powerful Senate Finance Committee and was a major force in getting a tax overhaul through Congress and signed into law in December.

He also played a key role in persuading President Donald Trump to sign proclamations scaling back two sprawling national monuments in Utah that Hatch and other conservatives considered examples of government overreach.

In a statement, Hatch said he decided to retire at the end of his seventh term after “much prayer and discussion with family and friends” over the holiday break.

“Only in a nation like ours could someone like me — the scrappy son of a simple carpenter — grow up to become a United States Senator,” he added.

Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who now lives in Utah, has been eyeing a Senate run, but Trump had encouraged Hatch to seek re-election.

Romney thanked Hatch in a statement on Facebook and said Hatch “has represented the interests of Utah with distinction and honor.”

Romney’s statement did not mention his own plans.

Trump had been open in recent months about pressuring Hatch to stay in the Senate, particularly as Romney’s ambition for the seat became apparent. Trump’s private lobbying campaign was bolstered by a public love-fest, as Trump invited Hatch with him on Air Force One in December as he shrunk the boundaries of the two Utah monuments.

Trump called Hatch “a fighter” and “a special friend of mine,” and thanked Hatch for his vocal support when “it wasn’t exactly the easiest thing to do.”

Romney has a far more tortured relationship with the president, having been a vocal critic of Trump’s during the 2016 campaign, including delivering a broadside address in March 2016 condemning Trump. But after the election, Romney submitted himself as a candidate to be secretary of state in an excruciatingly public interview process.

Since Trump has moved into the White House, Romney has been a frequent detractor, particularly after Trump equivocated on condemning white supremacists in Charlottesville last summer.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Tuesday she had not discussed Romney’s potential candidacy with Trump and could not say whether the president would support him.

Amid earlier speculation about Hatch’s plans, the Utah senator stepped up to defend Romney, a fellow Mormon. Last month Hatch lashed out at former White House adviser Steve Bannon for his attack on Romney and the Mormon Church.

At a rally for Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, Bannon called Romney, the GOP’s 2012 presidential nominee, a draft dodger who “hid behind” his religion. Romney received a draft deferment for missionary work in France during Vietnam.

Hatch called Bannon’s attack “disappointing and unjustified” and said Romney “has sought every opportunity” to serve the country