WASHINGTON When Sen. Orrin Hatch and his wife discussed whether he should run again for the U.S. Senate late last year, she said, "Orrin, don't you think it's time for you and me to have a life?"
After 49 years of marriage, 30 of which her husband has spent in the Senate, it appeared Elaine Hatch was ready for a change.
But Orrin Hatch, a Republican and the longest serving Utah politician still in office, just smiled at his wife and said, "Elaine, this is our life."
"My life is a life of service," he said.
So with that, Hatch, 72, opted to run for a sixth term and says he will keep running as long as he remains in good health and his position in the Senate will benefit the state.
"I believe I can do some things that others can't," Hatch said. "I'm right in the middle of all of it."
If re-elected, he will become the longest serving politician in Utah history. He's tied with Republican Reed Smoot, the state's first U.S. senator who also served 30 years. Hatch would be 78 years old by the time his sixth term would be up if re-elected.
Some observers have said Hatch has had his share of so-called "senior moments" in the past few years, where his staff has quickly had to handle some missteps, like confusing the Vietnam War with the Iraq war or saying that terrorists are waiting for Democrats to take control of the government before striking again.
But Hatch said he is fine and actually better than ever.
"If anything I am stronger today than I was then," Hatch said. "I may not be able to play basketball like I once did, but I keep going every day."
Hatch and his wife have six children, 22 grandchildren with another on the way and one great-grandchild.
Although this financial disclosure forms reveal his personal wealth is worth at least $1 million and as much as about $4 million, Hatch said he came from a poor family and he remembers selling eggs from his family's chickens at 6 years old.
"I knew what it was like to be hungry," Hatch said.
Hatch is running on his record in the Senate and what the future may hold for him if the Republicans hold onto the majority in this election and the 2008 election.
Only seven other senators in the current Senate have served longer than he has, and only Sen. Dick Lugar, R-Ind., remains from Hatch's freshman class of senators. Hatch sits on powerful committees, often as one of the top-ranking Republicans.
From debating who gets to be a federal judge and the finer points of Medicare policy, to international trade and intelligence matters he can't even talk about, Hatch said he has the right positions on the right committees and connections around Washington that can best serve the state.
"I don't think anyone around here doubts I work hard," Hatch said. "I am certainly not going to let up."
If all goes right for the GOP in 2006 and 2008, Hatch would take over the Senate Finance Committee in 2009, just at the same time Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, would likely take over the Senate Banking Committee giving Utah a powerful position over the country's financial policies.
"I want to make sure that the government doesn't tax you until you die and then tax you again," Hatch said.
The Senate Finance Committee oversees most major federal programs Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, trade agreements and tax laws. Because most major bills have tax consequences, Hatch said he will have a hand in almost all major legislation.
"I am in a position to really make sure that Utah, with its small population compared to California with 55 members of Congress two senators and 53 congressmen that we can stack up against them very, very well," Hatch said. "I think most people in Washington who have worked here over the years realize you're not going to push Utah around as long as I'm here."
Before this can happen, he needs to get re-elected,and Hatch hopes voters know that he wants to stay in Washington. He said he has a "proven track record of getting things done for Utah" and that it is a "tremendous advantage" for a state to have someone with his experience and status in the Senate.
"It is no secret that I have been tremendously blessed to have been able to serve my state for the last 30 years in the United States Senate, and I have given it every effort I possibly can," Hatch said. "I want to build on this record of accomplishment."
While Hatch uses his long history with the Senate as a reason to vote for him, critics like his Democratic opponent Pete Ashdown would say it is time for a new voice and a fresh start in the Senate for the state. Some would think he should have followed his wife's advice, retiring while he was ahead, while others feel he has not quite reached the ranks of the late Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., who died three years ago, just after leaving office, at the age of 100, serving a record 48 years in the Senate.
Larry J. Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said an elected official in Hatch's position needs to consider if they can continue to win and what else they want to do with their life.
"Do I want another life outside the Senate before the end comes?" Sabato said. "There has to be some motivation there for another experience."
Sabato said the Senate can become a "ball and chain" to members who stay in too long, but that it is also up to the voters to decide when it is time for someone to go.
Hatch has pursued other ideas. In late 1999, he made a brief run for the party's presidential nomination but bowed out after a dismal showing in the Iowa caucus. And outside of politics, he has had success as a songwriter.
Hatch isn't talking about running for president again, but that apparently doesn't mean his time is up in Washington.
Brian Darling, director of U.S. Senate Relations at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C., said Hatch has not been in the Senate too long and is "looked upon as an elder statesman" who still accomplishes things for the state.
Darling worked on the Senate Judiciary Committee for former Sen. Bob Smith, R-N.H., while Hatch served as the committee chairman. He said Hatch has a "nice balance" between working in the Senate as an institution but also pursuing the interests of the state.
"He is very popular in the state. People don't perceive him as an insider," Darling said.
However, he did get a cool reception among party faithful in his last election, when he and then-Gov. Mike Leavitt were booed at the 2000 state GOP convention.
Hatch barely got the party nomination from angry conservatives who may have voted for him at the polls but wanted to send him a message that four terms in Washington had made him too liberal.
Hatch classifies himself as a moderate conservative. He wants to keep the country's top military power and make sure troops are equipped and ready to protect the nation's security, he said. He is against abortion and wants to pass a constitutional amendment that would overturn Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion, or see the court overturn the case.
But he does strongly support stem-cell research. He sees it as a way to solve health-care issues, which he sees as one of the main problems waiting in the future.
"For the same reason I describe myself as pro-life, I embrace embryonic stem-cell research, because I believe being pro-life is not only about caring for the unborn but about caring for the living as well," Hatch has said.
He and Elaine live in a Virginia suburb near Washington but have a home in Salt Lake City and try to get back to the state as often as they can.
"This is a full-time job here, there's no question about it," Hatch said.
Although Hatch's family has Utah roots, Hatch hails from Pittsburgh, Pa. He attended Brigham Young University where he met Elaine, a Utah native.
He served in the Great Lakes Mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, got married, then graduated from BYU in 1958, two months after the birth of their first child, Brent. Orrin and Elaine Hatch moved back to Pittsburgh, where Hatch went to law school at the University of Pittsburgh on a scholarship.
The Hatch family returned to Utah in 1969, where he took a job as senior vice president and general counsel for an oil and drilling company but eventually left, and by 1975 he had a successful law practice.
He turned his interests to public office after being fed up with what he heard was going on in Washington. Without ever holding elected office, he had little money and no name recognition. But he still beat incumbent Sen. Frank Moss, a Utah Democrat, in the 1976 election and has been re-elected five times since.
"Utah's never had a better senator," said Lee Roderick, a former Washington journalist who has written two books on Hatch.
Even if the Democrats would take over the majority of the Senate, which is a possibility this election, Hatch would still be an asset to the state because he can work with Democrats, Roderick said.Hatch has a close working relationship with Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass, Roderick said, and is "one of the few around here that knows how to bring both sides together."
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