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Frank R. Pignanelli and LaVarr Webb: Hatch retirement adds intrigue to 2018 Utah politics

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, talks to journalists in the combined Deseret News and KSL newsroom in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2018.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, talks to journalists in the combined Deseret News and KSL newsroom in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2018.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

The retirement of Sen. Orrin Hatch will create some excitement in Utah’s political world in 2018. (Yes, Frank, who predicted Hatch would run, has already eaten two flocks of crows. Webb is spiking the football.) We examine the ramifications.

What does Hatch’s departure mean for Utah political races, especially if former GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney enters the Senate contest (as of Thursday, when this column was written, Romney hadn’t announced his intentions)?

Pignanelli: "The Senate is the last primitive society in the world. We worship elders of the tribe and honor the territorial imperative." — Sen. Eugene McCarthy

As governor of Massachusetts, Romney pushed many initiatives, especially a successful universal health care program which greatly expanded medical coverage to his constituents and inspired a national effort (aka Obamacare). The successful Olympic president/CEO publicly, and fiercely, opposed Donald Trump in the primaries. So Romney has appeal to some Democrats and many independents.

Therefore, Utah Democratic Party officials should assess the new political situation and execute the following: express appreciation to their current senatorial candidates; enthusiastically endorse Romney as the Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate; then promptly claim victory. Thus, Democrats seeking other offices can support him and benefit from a massive Romney generated turnout.

Obviously I'm joking (maybe), but Utah Democrats need some strategy. Romney will enthuse voters of all demographics. Further, any negative media against the adopted favorite son will backfire.

Other questions are percolating. Will Romney mirror Hatch by building a campaign machine? Does Romney run on his brand alone or engage in retail electioneering? How does he message his relationship with Trump?

Bless Hatch. Even his retirement makes politics unexpected and interesting.

Webb: Romney will obviously win, but he also gives Republicans a very strong candidate at the top of the ticket. That could help other Utah Republicans in tough races.

Will national left-wing and right-wing special-interest groups try to influence Utah's Senate race?

Pignanelli: Within minutes of Hatch’s announcement, extremist groups sent nasty emails to Utah politicos attacking Romney and encouraging others to get into the race. This will continue until they run out of money. Should Romney decline to run, dozens of contenders would file. In the vacuum of a clear front-runner, numerous organizations with various political affiliations will bombard voters by mail, television, print and social media.

Utahns do not take kindly to outsiders trying to influence our choice in leaders. So the only beneficiaries of all the external resources will be their local campaign operatives with a fat contract.

Webb: Political anarchist Steve Bannon was itching to try to defeat Romney, but after the monumental (and deserving) smackdown by President Trump, Bannon likely won’t be much of a factor. The other usual suspects — FreedomWorks, Club for Growth and Americans for Prosperity (the Koch group) — would be wise to keep their powder dry and not waste their energy trying to defeat Romney.

With Hatch's retirement, insiders are worried that Utah will suffer a loss of influence in the nation's capital. Will there be a void?

Pignanelli: Seniority is paramount in the allocation of federal resources to states — which Hatch utilized to benefit Utah. From Hill Air Force Base to medical technologies to charitable causes to research and development projects, Hatch’s largesse was incredible. The remaining congressional delegation and his replacement must work hard to keep even a substantial portion of these important dollars to our state.

Webb: Hatch’s clout, institutional knowledge and remarkable ability to get legislation passed will absolutely be missed. Hatch’s small-minded and cloistered critics in Utah have underestimated the power he has on the national stage and how much good he has done. His service has been extraordinary. No one works harder or is more focused.

That said, while Romney won’t have much seniority, he will have a bully pulpit that few new senators enjoy. He won’t have seniority, but he will have influence. That’s especially so because he will be expected to sometimes strike a course independent of Trump and the news media will frequently seek him out.

However, I’m predicting that Romney will get along better with Trump than many people expect. They will agree on many policy issues. Romney understands that you don’t solve the nation’s problems by being a marginalized bomb-thrower.

Romney could be a force for bringing partisans together and seeking bipartisan solutions. That will be difficult, as Hatch can attest, because there are very few centrist Democrats, and the Democratic agenda is essentially to obstruct progress and prevent the president and Republican Congress from getting any wins.

Compromise isn’t even in the vocabulary of leftist senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, who essentially dictate Democratic strategy.

Hatch still has a year of hard work ahead on many important issues. Romney still has to win the job.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Previously he was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and Deseret News managing editor. Email: Democrat Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Pignanelli served 10 years in the Utah House of Representatives, six years as minority leader. His spouse, D'Arcy Dixon Pignanelli, is the president/CEO of the Special Olympics of Utah. Email: