The longest-serving Republican senator, Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, will not seek re-election this coming November, he said Tuesday in a move that opens the door to a possible bid for the seat by Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential candidate who has distinguished himself through his harsh criticisms of President Donald Trump.
The 83-year-old Hatch, who was first elected in 1976, has long debated whether to run to keep his seat, drawing public appeals from Trump not to retire.
“I'm deeply grateful for the privilege you've given me to serve as your senator these last four decades,” he said in a statement. “I may be leaving the Senate, but the next chapter in my public service is just beginning.”
Hatch is the chairman of the tax-writing Senate Finance Committee and has been credited by Trump with helping ram through last month's massive tax overhaul through Congress, viewed widely as a blatant handover to the rich.
Widespread speculation exists that former Massachusetts Governor Romney, the failed Republican candidate who ran against President Barack Obama in 2012, may run to take Hatch's Senate seat. Romney, who is a Mormon, has close ties to Utah, a state with a majority-Mormon population.
In a statement on Twitter, Romney praised Hatch for his service but he did not say if he would enter the Senate race. Romney would likely be a top contender in November's elections, according to GOP strategist Joe Brettell.
"Romney's name ID, fund-raising network and business acumen will immediately vault him to the top of the Senate GOP list," Brettell said. "The question is whether he can happily weather a body currently known more for partisan rancor than the Mr. Fixit role he's played all his life.”
In a tweet, Trump congratulated Hatch on "an absolutely incredible career." Trump called Hatch a "tremendous supporter" and said he will be "greatly missed" in the Senate.
Trump said last month he wanted Hatch to run for another six-year Senate term in 2018, in a slap at Romney, who was one of Trump's harshest Republican critics during the 2016 presidential campaign.
"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!" the former host of “The Apprentice” said.