Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, and Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., are both well-known senators from red states in the West. Both have relationships with President Donald Trump that are altering their political careers. But that’s where the similarities end.
Flake, an unapologetically vocal critic of Trump, has decided to not run for reelection.
Hatch, on the other hand, is taking heat from his state’s biggest newspaper because he’s an avid supporter of Trump.
The takeaway for GOP senators: You’re damned if you join him, damned if you don’t.
Really, it’s the same no-win scenario they’ve been struggling with since Trump won the GOP presidential nomination. A controversial, complicated president has somehow maneuvered the Republican Party’s base to a place unrecognizable to the establishment.
Flake and Hatch took two very different paths in this new Trumpian GOP, but they could ultimately lead to the same place: an end to their senatorial careers.
Flake spoke out against Trump as a presidential candidate and this year authored a book, “Conscience of a Conservative,” blaming his party for the rise of Trump. But his poll numbers in his home state dropped and a pro-Trump primary challenger gained traction.
He realized he couldn’t win a Republican primary opposing the party’s leader, no matter how unpopular that leader may be more broadly with the American public and Arizona general election voters. (Arizona went for Trump over Hillary Clinton by just 3.5 percentage points in November, one of Trump’s worst performances in a Republican presidential state.)
In announcing his retirement from the Senate, Flake basically admitted his anti-Trump stance cost him his chance at reelection.
Hatch’s political problems are very different. He’s become a vocal Trump supporter, but he’s taking serious heat back home for that.
The Salt Lake Tribune’s editorial board just called on him to retire precisely due to his work with Trump. In a Christmas Day editorial, the editorial board said Hatch shouldn’t run for an eighth term in 2018 because of his “utter lack of integrity that rises from his unquenchable thirst for power.”
The editorial focused largely on Hatch’s pro-Trump creds to back up that extraordinary characterization of one of Utah’s most well-known politicians. As chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Hatch was instrumental in getting Republicans’ tax reform bill to Trump’s desk by Christmas, as the president demanded.
Despite criticisms that the bill would mainly benefit the wealthy and corporations, while causing the federal debt to rise, Hatch passionately and angrily defended the bill’s premise, drawing headlines for saying stuff like this: “I come from poor people.”
When the tax bill passed, Trump and Hatch exchanged praises at a celebration ceremony at the White House.
“Orrin is a special person,” Trump said.
“Mr. President, I have to say that you’re living up to everything I thought you would,” Hatch responded when he got the mic. “You’re one heck of a leader, and we’re all benefiting from it.”
In addition to supporting the tax bill, Hatch was a key player in urging Trump’s administration to drastically shrink two national monuments in Utah. He traveled with the president to Utah to help him announce the decision.
Reporting suggests Trump likes Hatch and wants him to run for reelection again. (Besides liking the guy, if Hatch stays, it could keep prominent Trump critic Mitt Romney from running for the seat.)
In our rankings of where GOP senators stand on Trump, Hatch leans positive overall. Earlier this year, Hatch was generally positive of Trump’s controversial decision to fire James Comey as FBI director, though he called out the president for not clearly denouncing white supremacists this summer in Charlottesville.
Much of this is at odds with the state Hatch represents: Utah’s Mormon population was very skeptical of Trump during the campaign. Trump ultimately won the state, but a third-party challenger earned a fifth of the vote in November, a sizable chunk for a candidate with hardly any name recognition.
Hatch hasn’t said whether he will run for reelection in 2018, but during the 2012 election he suggested these six years would be his last in office.
Though it is unlikely that Hatch would face a strong challenger in the GOP primary, like Flake has, his siding with Trump could cost him votes in the general election. And while it may seem unlikely that a state as red as Utah would elect a Democrat to the Senate, anything seems possible after Alabama.
Right now, Hatch’s prominent association with Trump is manifesting in high-profile criticism from a major paper that has called on him to retire in the past. But it’s definitely his association with Trump that’s earning him such scathing criticism.
Both he and Flake could ultimately learn the same lesson: A year into Trump’s presidency, Republican senators still have no winning formula to deal with Trump.