WASHINGTON • United States Republican Senator Orrin Hatch has said he will not seek re-election in November, opening the door to a potential Senate bid by Mr Mitt Romney, one of the party's harshest critics of President Donald Trump.
Mr Hatch, a close ally of the President, decided to step down despite strong encouragement from the latter to run for an eighth term in the Senate.
"Every good fighter knows when to hang up the gloves. And for me, that time is soon approaching," Mr Hatch said in a video statement posted on Twitter on Tuesday.
"That's why after much prayer and discussion with family and friends, I've decided to retire at the end of this term."
Mr Hatch, 83, of Utah, is the most senior Republican in the US Senate, having first been elected in 1976. He is chairman of the tax-writing Senate Finance Committee. Mr Trump has credited him with helping shepherd a massive tax overhaul through Congress last month.
Mr Hatch steps down amid speculation that Mr Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who ran against Democratic President Barack Obama in 2012, would run for his Senate seat.
Mr Romney, who is a Mormon, has close ties to Utah, a state with a majority-Mormon population.
In a statement on Twitter, Mr Romney praised Mr Hatch for his service but he did not say if he would enter the Senate race.
TIME TO STEP DOWN
Every good fighter knows when to hang up the gloves. And for me, that time is soon approaching. That's why after much prayer and discussion with family and friends, I've decided to retire at the end of this term.
UNITED STATES REPUBLICAN SENATOR ORRIN HATCH, on not seeking an eighth term as Utah senator.
A close Romney adviser, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Mr Hatch's decision increased the odds that Mr Romney would consider jumping in, saying that Mr Romney would likely decide soon whether to seek the Senate seat in the Republican-leaning state.
If he does decide to mount a campaign, Mr Romney, who gained national prominence as head of the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, would be the front runner, said Republican strategist Joe Brettell.
"The question is whether he can happily weather a body currently known more for partisan rancour than the Mr Fixit role he's played all his life," Mr Brettell said.
In a tweet, Mr Trump congratulated Mr Hatch on "an absolutely incredible career".
Mr Trump called Mr Hatch a "tremendous supporter" and said he will be "greatly missed" in the Senate.
Mr Trump said last month he wanted Mr Hatch to run for another six-year Senate term in 2018, in a slap at Mr Romney, who was one of Mr Trump's harshest Republican critics during the 2016 presidential campaign.
Mr Romney repeatedly assailed the President during the 2016 campaign, calling Mr Trump "a fraud", and Mr Trump shot back, stating that Mr Romney "choked like a dog" in the 2012 race.
The two had something of a rapprochement after the election, when Mr Romney was briefly considered as secretary of state, but White House advisers are reportedly uneasy about having such a well-known critic in the Senate.
Today, Mr Romney's potential ascent is particularly alarming to the White House because the former presidential candidate has an extensive political network and could use the Senate seat as a platform to again seek the nomination.
Even if he were not to run again for president, a Senator Romney could prove a pivotal swing vote, impervious to the entreaties of a president he has scorned and able to rally other Trump sceptics in the chamber.
REUTERS, WASHINGTON POST, NYTIMES