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Utah's Orrin Hatch announces he will retire from the Senate

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R- Utah) speaks with President Donald Trump during an event in Salt Lake City, Utah, Dec. 4, 2017. Hatch, the longest-serving Senate Republican, plans to announce on Jan. 2 he will retire at the end of the year, rebuffing the pleas of President Trump to seek an eighth term and paving the way for Mitt Romney to run for the seat. (Tom Brenner/The New York Times Copyright 2018)

WASHINGTON - Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, will retire from the Senate at the end of this term, he announced Tuesday, a decision that will bring his four-decade congressional career to an end and inject new intrigue into the midterm elections with an open race that could feature Mitt Romney.

In a video announcement he posted online, Hatch reflected on his time as an amateur boxer in his youth as he explained his desire to step down early next year.

"Every good fighter knows when to hang up the gloves. And for me, that time is soon approaching," said Hatch, 83. "That's why after much prayer and discussion with family and friends, I've decided to retire at the end of this term."

Hatch's decision triggers an open contest in a state that leans heavily to the right. Republicans with a close eye on the race said they expect Romney to run for Hatch's seat, and have seen signs that his allies have long been gearing up for a bid.

"I think the field is precleared. I think he still wants to serve. I think we could use someone with his real world business experience in the Senate," Dan Eberhart, a wealthy GOP donor, wrote of Romney in an email.

The 2o12 Republican presidential nominee has not made any definitive public statements about his plans.

"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 written statement on Facebook Tuesday that did not address his own future.

If Romney runs, he will have a clear shot at the Republican nomination and start as an early general election favorite. He has deep family roots and strong institutional backing in the state, as well as powerful national donor network he could quickly activate.

Romney has been an outspoken critic of President Donald Trump and the president has also lambasted him. A return to the political arena by Romney would present their difficult relationship with a new test.

In early October, Hatch said he spoke with Romney a while ago about the Senate race.

"I like Mitt," Hatch said at the time. Asked if he thought Romney would be interested in coming to Washington during the Trump era, Trump replied, "I don't know. It didn't seem like it to me," adding a chuckle at the end.

In his Tuesday announcement, Hatch mentioned the president, who urged him to run last month.

"When the president visited Utah last month, he said I was a fighter. I've always been a fighter. I was an amateur boxer in my youth, and I brought that fighting spirit with me to Washington," said Hatch.

Asked if the president is committed to campaign for whomever the Republican nominee ends up being, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Tuesday, "I don't think we've made a determination in terms of campaigning."

Hatch is the president pro tempore of the Senate, as well as the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. As the top lawmaker on the panel, Hatch played a key role in passing the tax bill that Trump signed into law late last month.

Sanders said that Trump "has the greatest and deepest amount of respect for Senator Hatch and appreciated the role he played in the tax talks."

In his announcement, Hatch mentioned Trump, who urged him to run for reelection in December.

"When the president visited Utah last month, he said I was a fighter. I've always been a fighter," Hatch said.

For months, Hatch's political future has been on the minds of Republican strategists and officials, many of whom expected him to step down at some at some point soon after the tax bill was completed.

Hatch was first elected to the Senate in 1976. He is finishing up his seventh term in the upper chamber of Congress this year as the longest-serving Republican senator in history.

Hatch's departure will leave openings for important and symbolic roles. If Republicans hold their majority in this year's elections, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, would likely reclaim his seniority on the Finance Committee and give up the gavel at the Judiciary Committee.

Hatch will also give up the title of president pro tempore, the constitutional leader of the Senate who is in the presidential line of succession behind the vice president and House speaker. If Republicans hold the majority, Sens. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., and then Grassley are next in line of seniority to claim that largely honorific role.

In Utah, the legislature changed the rules for nomination in 2014, as part of a backlash against state Republican Party's decision to deny the nomination to incumbent Republican Sen. Bob Bennett at the 2010 state GOP convention. Now-Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, won the nomination instead, and went on to win the general election.

Under the new rules, Republican nominees do not need to depend on attendees at the state convention to get on the ballot. They can also collect 28,000 signatures from voters to run in the Republican primary.

"The Utah Republican Party is quite conservative," said Phill Wright, a member of the state Republican central committee and a former party vice chairman. "It would be hard for someone like Mitt Romney to win at the convention with delegates. There is no question he can buy his way onto the ballot."

One other Republican candidate, Larry Meyers, a St. George, Utah, attorney, has announced his intention to run for the seat. He attempted to unseat Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, in 2014, but was defeated at the state party convention.

Other conservatives in the state have been trying to recruit another conservative challenger to contest Romney from the right, but no candidates have yet come forward.

"Conservatives are always looking someone with the moral quality Romney has and is conservative at the same time," said Gayle Ruzicka, the president of the Utah Eagle Forum. "He's not conservative."

Among those cheering on Romney to run Tuesday was Evan McMullin, a Utah native who ran for president as an independent in 2016 and has talked about potentially running for office again.

"In this seat, we must have a leader prepared to meet the challenges of our day and our future. I hope that leader will be @MittRomney," he wrote on Twitter.

Jenny Wilson, a Salt Lake City city councilwoman who's seeking the Democratic nomination, said in statement that Hatch made "the right decision for Utah" and that she would stay in the race.

Author information: Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012. Michael Scherer is a national political reporter at The Washington Post.

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