SALT LAKE CITY — A day after a potential Republican challenger accepted a Trump administration nomination, Sen. Orrin Hatch said he intends to run for an eighth term.
Hatch, the longest-serving GOP senator, told CNN on Thursday he is planning to run for re-election next year, abandoning his plans to retire from the Senate after four decades of service.
The Utah Republican, who promised in the 2012 election that his current term would be his last, said he has changed his mind at this time, partially because he's been getting encouragement from President Donald Trump and top Republicans to run again.
"I'm planning on (running) right now," Hatch told CNN. "That's what my current plans are."
Hatch's comments are the clearest signal yet from the most senior Republican senator, who is third in the line of succession to the president as the Senate's president pro tempore.
Hatch's office quickly sent out a statement trying to walk back his words.
"While he has not made a final decision about his plans for 2018, he has made plans thus far to ensure all options remain on the table. His focus remains on the many fast-moving agenda items in the Senate like repealing and replacing Obamacare and confirming Judge (Neil) Gorsuch to the Supreme Court," according to the statement.
The seven-term senator's office, however, has gone out of its way the past several months to tout how valuable Hatch is to the Trump administration and Utah. It has sent out statements from GOP colleagues, business leaders and local officials extolling his effectiveness in Washington.
"All indications over the past four months are that he is definitely going to run," said Boyd Matheson, president of the conservative Sutherland Institute and former chief of staff for Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah.
Matheson, however, said Hatch finds himself in an interesting position because the most recent Dan Jones & Associates poll showed 79 percent of Utahns want him to keep his promise and not run, while a number of business leaders have been making a case for his re-election.
Hatch's decision comes as Trump tabbed former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. as his nominee for ambassador to Russia. Some had speculated that Huntsman would have mounted a primary challenge to Hatch in 2018.
Huntsman told the Deseret News earlier this year that he has one more run at elected office in him, but he would not say what office he would seek.
Hatch said he spent an hour Wednesday with his "longtime friend" Huntsman and said he believed the former ambassador to China was not going to challenge him.
"I don't think he would have ever run against me," Hatch said. "He didn't really want to run for Senate."
Asked if he was preparing for a tough 2018 re-election battle, Hatch said: "Anyone who wants to take me on knows it's going to be a real ordeal."
Hatch's comments Thursday caught his longtime campaign strategist Dave Hansen off guard.
"All I know is he's been kind of back and forth," he said.
Hansen said he doubts Hatch's decision had anything to do with whether Huntsman would run, adding the speculation about Huntsman jumping in has been out there for a long time.
It comes down to what Hatch wants to do, he said.
"He's in a very strong position in the U.S. Senate. His health is good," Hansen said. "He has a good relationship with the president. Certainly, there's a lot of advantages to the state for having him in that position."
In his first campaign in 1976, Hatch criticized three-term Democratic Sen. Frank Moss for serving too long.
"What do you call a senator who’s served in office for 18 years? You call him home," Hatch said more than 40 years ago.
Although Hatch said in 2012 his seventh term would be his last, he never seemed to fully close the door to the idea of running again. It has opened wider since Trump unexpectedly won the White House.
"I have a lot of people pressuring me to (run for re-election) because they know what I can do. And they know that as chairman of the Finance Committee, we make a real difference around here," Hatch said just after the election in November. "I’ll honestly look at it as much as I can."
Hatch, who will turn 83 later this month and has served in the Senate since 1977, could still change his mind again and decide to retire.
The decision comes as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Trump have both tried to persuade the powerful chairman of the Senate Finance Committee to run again.
"His pitch is he needs me," Hatch said of Trump. "Things are going to be just fine."