SALT LAKE CITY — Sen. Orrin Hatch said he would consider ending what would be a 42-year Senate career in 2018 if he "could get a really outstanding person to run," citing Mitt Romney as someone who "would be perfect" for the position.
But Hatch, R-Utah, reportedly laughed when then asked by the National Journal in a story posted late Tuesday whether Romney, the 2012 GOP presidential nominee who now calls the state home, has expressed interest in the job.
"I've expressed it to him," the seven-term senator said. "I can see why he might not want to do it, but I can also see why if he did it, it would be a great thing for America."
Romney, considered by President Donald Trump for secretary of state despite being one of his harshest critics during the campaign, told the Deseret News in early February that he might not be done with politics yet.
"I don't have any predictions on what I might do. I'm not going to open a door, and I'm not going to close a door. All doors are open," Romney said at the time, after bringing up the 2018 Senate race.
"I'm not looking forward to anything political at the national level," Romney told the Deseret News. "We've got some races coming up here in Utah that are going to be interesting. We'll see what happens on that front."
Hatch, 83, is third in the line of succession for the presidency behind Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and is working closely with the Trump administration as the Senate Finance Committee chairman.
"If he leaves, we are going to be losing a very powerful person in Washington," said Jason Perry, head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics. "He wants to make sure Utah stays very relevant."
Perry said it's "not surprising at all (Hatch) is very interested in who succeeds him," whenever that may be. "He mentioned Mitt Romney because his is a name that is already known nationally. He already has a following."
Longtime Romney supporter Kirk Jowers said he's "the one person with the gravitas who could almost instantly replace" the prominence Hatch has in the nation's capital.
Jowers, a former Hinckley Institute head, said Romney would have little difficulty raising the money needed for a Senate race, "and with his name ID and favorability, it's really difficult to see anyone being effective against him."
Whether Romney, who just turned 70, would get in the race remains to be seen.
"I would be a little surprised if he ran for Senate, but certainly not shocked," Jowers said. "Because if he felt he could make a real difference there, I could see him doing that for a term or two."
Hatch offered a very different answer when the National Journal interviewer mentioned two other potential contenders for his Senate seat, former independent presidential candidate Evan McMullin and former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.
"If I decide to run again, and I very well may, I'm going to win," Hatch responded, according to the story, which also detailed some of what he is taking into consideration in making the decision.
"I haven't made that final determination. There are a bunch of reasons to do it, a bunch of reasons not to do it," Hatch told the publication, including making more time for his wife of 60 years, Elaine, and his Orrin G. Hatch Foundation.
"So these are things that are pulling at me. If I could get a really outstanding person to run for my position, I might very well consider it," he said of not seeking re-election.
Hatch spokesman Matt Whitlock downplayed the possibility in a statement.
"This was an off-the-cuff comment amid speculation about a number of options for the future. Sen. Hatch has spoken with a number of prominent Utah Republicans, many of whom have urged him to run again, but at the end of the day, his top priority is making sure the people of Utah have the best seat at the table," Whitlock said.
Earlier this month, Hatch said in an interview with CNN, "I'm planning on (running) right now. That's what my current plans are." He acknowledged to the National Journal he'd said a run was likely, but he "hasn't made the final determination."
One of Romney's five sons, Josh, has been mentioned as a possible Senate candidate, although Josh Romney has said he is “strongly considering” a run for Utah governor in 2020.
And Mitt Romney's wife, Ann, said this week she believes their son should "go for it." She said in an interview on NBC's "Today" show, "I definitely see it in the lights for Josh."
McMullin has said he is considering a run against either Hatch or Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah. Huntsman has also said he was looking at the Senate race, but now reportedly is Trump’s pick for U.S. ambassador to Russia.