After extensive conversations with President-elect Donald Trump over the past several weeks, Sen. Hatch told the Deseret News on Thursday that “Utahns will play a major role in choosing the next Supreme Court Justice.”
The Hatch camp also expressed confidence that the President-elect would pick a nominee to “defend religious liberty.”
While the news seems straightforward (Trump has been consulting with Hatch and possibly other Utahns about his Supreme Court pick) the larger message is more subtle — i.e., for better or worse, Hatch is Utah’s Trump whisperer.
For the pro-Hatch camp this is yet more proof that he’s the Beehive State’s “indispensable” man; and yet, for some Utah Republicans this makes him all the more “disposable.” There’s little denying, however, that Hatch’s newfound influence with the soon-to-be chief executive is also coming at a time when the octogenarian is among the most productive — and prolific — Senators at the Capitol.
What's impressive is not only that Hatch has historically passed more bills than any other living Senator, but that he's evidently not slowing. This Congress alone Sen. Hatch passed 47 bills with fully 45 of those bills enacted into law—the most in the Senate.
And, as Hatch supporter Kirk Jowers recently pointed out “as chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, ... Hatch’s committee has considered and passed 37 bipartisan bills relating to tax reform, international trade, retirement security, and health policy — the most bipartisan bills processed by the committee since 1980.”
The folks at Utah Policy also note that Hatch's role as chairman of the Finance Committee could become even more influential in the years ahead. “Much of Trump’s agenda," they write, "including changes to the tax code, repealing Obamacare and a trillion dollar infrastructure package, will have to move through the Senate Finance Committee, which Hatch chairs.”
This narrative is compelling. Yet, that’s not to say Hatch isn’t vulnerable. As Trump has proven, incumbency and a reputation as an “insider” is as much a liability in the current political climate as it is an asset.
Furthermore, Hatch’s close relationship with Trump is also by no means a universal positive. Trump, after all, struggled in Utah and won with a mere 45 percent of the vote (Bush and Romney both garnered more than 70 percent of the state’s vote).
What’s more, in Utah there’s already chatter about possible primary contenders. Jon Huntsman Jr. is a possibility even as his name is being floated as a potential pick for ambassador to Japan.
Yet, other names are percolating as well, including Boyd Matheson the President of the Sutherland Institute and former Chief of Staff to Sen. Mike Lee and Derek Miller, President of World Trade Center Utah and former Chief of Staff to Gov. Gary Herbert.
Perhaps the most intriguing name that politicos are discussing is the president of Utah Valley University, Matthew S. Holland. Although there is a strong sense that Holland is satisfied in his current role, there’s a growing cohort hoping Holland will succeed Hatch, becoming Utah’s analog to Nebraska’s Sen. Ben Sasse — a PhD-wielding university president turned U.S. Senator.
Anyone who decides to contest Hatch will undoubtedly have a steep hill to climb. Hatch has proven Teflon to the tea party insurgency, and he had the political foresight to stick with Donald Trump when others were abandoning the controversial candidate.
Given the senior senator’s ability to read the political tea leaves and use his senatorial power to be remarkably productive on behalf of Utah, those looking to replace Sen. Hatch will need savvy political whispers of their own come 2018.