By Sean Sullivan and Michael Scherer

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, announced Tuesday that he will end a four-decade congressional career at the close of 2018, instantly unleashing the widespread presumption that former presidential contender Mitt Romney will seek to replace him.

Hatch, who is 83 and a close ally of President Donald Trump, decided to step down despite strong encouragement from the president 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,” Hatch said. “That’s why after much prayer and discussion with family and friends, I’ve decided to retire at the end of this term.”

His decision triggers an open contest in heavily Republican Utah — but it also establishes Romney, a frequent Trump critic, as an instant front-runner. And it sets the stage for Romney to play a very different role in the Senate than Hatch has, potentially complicating the president’s already rocky relationship with the GOP on Capitol Hill.

Romney has not made any definitive public statements about his plans.

“I join the people of Utah in thanking my friend, Senator Orrin Hatch for his more than forty years of service to our great state and nation,” he said Tuesday in a written statement on Facebook that did not address his future.

However, Republicans with a close eye on the race said they have seen signs for a while that Romney’s allies have been gearing up for a campaign.

“I think the field is pre-cleared. I think he still wants to serve,” Dan Eberhart, a wealthy GOP donor, wrote of Romney in an email. “I think we could use someone with his real world business experience in the Senate.”

In fact, by the time Hatch made his announcement Tuesday, talk was already underway in GOP circles about who would staff a Romney campaign and when he might officially jump in. For instance, Matt Waldrip, a longtime Romney adviser, is widely expected to be his campaign manager, according to two Republicans close to the emerging campaign, who spoke anonymously to describe private plans. Waldrip did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Romney enjoys deep family roots and strong institutional backing in Utah, as well as a powerful national donor network that he could quickly activate.

The former Massachusetts governor has shown a willingness this year to cross Trump on divisive matters. Late in 2017, just hours after Trump had voiced support for Roy Moore, the GOP’s embattled Senate nominee in Alabama, Romney spoke out on Twitter against Moore. Weeks before that, Romney praised Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., following a speech that featured a sharp critique of Trump’s approach to foreign policy.

Jason Chaffetz, a former Republican congressman from Utah and a Romney ally, said he sees potential for Romney and Trump to work together, noting that the president considered Romney for secretary of state during his presidential transition. But there will be a clear limit to what Romney would tolerate without speaking out, Chaffetz said.

“Make no mistake about it: Mitt Romney is going to speak his mind if he thinks the president is saying or doing something silly,” Chaffetz said. “He’s going to express it.”

In early October, Hatch said he had spoken with Romney about the Senate race.

“I like Mitt,” Hatch said at the time. Asked if he thought Romney would be interested in coming to Washington during the Trump era, Hatch replied, “I don’t know. It didn’t seem like it to me,” adding a chuckle at the end.

The White House, meanwhile, offered no assurances that Trump would campaign for the eventual Republican nominee in Utah. “I don’t think we’ve made a determination in terms of campaigning,” said press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

As chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Hatch was a leading public face of Republican tax legislation that Trump signed into law late last month.

Sanders said Trump “has the greatest and deepest amount of respect for Senator Hatch and appreciated the role he played in the tax talks.”

In his announcement, Hatch mentioned Trump, who urged him to run for re-election in December.

“When the president visited Utah last month, he said I was a fighter. I’ve always been a fighter,” Hatch said.