- Associated Press - Friday, December 2, 2016

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - As the dust clears from the 2016 election, Utah Republicans have already turned their attention to 2018 and whether longtime U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch will stick to his word that he won’t run for re-election.

Hatch, the longest-serving Republican in the Senate, said four years ago that his current term will be his last.

But in recent weeks, he’s opened the door to another six years, saying he has more work to do and is being encouraged to run again - a move that could shake up plans for a number of high-profile Utah politicians who’ve been waiting in the wings, hoping for a chance to seek a rare open Senate seat.

Two potential candidates - former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. and World Trade Center Utah leader Derek Miller - say Hatch’s decision will impact their potential campaigns but neither ruled out a challenge to the seven-term Republican.

Hatch has said he’s going to give his decision “every consideration” as many people encourage him to run again. His chief of staff Rob Porter reiterated that Friday, saying Hatch “has not made any decisions but is carefully considering these and other viewpoints.”

Hatch’s wavering could scuttle plans for a number of Republicans who had quietly started building support and now have to weigh whether they can take on someone with national name recognition, four decades of experience and about $1.8 million, a sizeable cushion, already in his campaign account.

University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank said some candidates may sit on the sidelines if Hatch runs again, but others with strong political resumes and donor networks might decide it’s still worth a shot.

“This is one of the few times when you might feel like you could probably successfully challenge an incumbent, given the fact that he said he wasn’t going to run again,” Burbank said.

Josh Romney, a Utah resident and son of 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney, has been floated as a potential Senate candidate for years.

Josh Romney said in a statement Friday that he’s been asked by others to consider running for political office and is strongly considering running for Utah governor in 2020.

“What others do will not affect my decision-making process,” Romney said.

However, if Hatch runs again, “I would strongly support him and do anything I could to be helpful to his re-election efforts.”

Jon Huntsman Jr., also a former presidential candidate and U.S. ambassador to China, said in a statement, “We’re going to take a good look at it over the next six months to see how best to serve a great state.”

Miller said he’s considering a run, but Hatch’s decision would certainly impact his ability to mount a campaign. Miller, a former chief of staff to Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, said “at this point, Sen. Hatch said he would not run again. I believe he’s a man of his word so I’m proceeding based on that word.”

Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes is another Republican whose name has circulated as potential candidate.

“While he is set up well to run for office and should never rule anything out, he is pleased to have just been re-elected,” Alan Crooks, Reyes’ campaign consultant said.

Evan McMullin, a former CIA agent who mounted an independent run for president this year and finished in third place in Utah, said he plans to weigh a possible run after he finishes winding down his campaign. Hatch’s eventual decision won’t affect his thinking, he said.

Heavily Republican Utah hasn’t had a Democratic U.S. senator since Frank Moss in 1977, but Democrats could have a shot in 2018 if they nominate someone such as former U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson, said Brigham Young University political science professor Jeremy Pope.

Matheson, a careful, moderate Democrat who appealed to Republicans with fiscally conservative stances, did not return a message Friday seeking comment about whether he’d run.

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