SALT LAKE CITY — As media reports continue to suggest Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, is making plans to retire, the longest-serving Republican senator in history maintained Friday that he hasn't made up his mind yet.
In a story published Friday citing five anonymous sources all corroborating the rumor, the Atlantic reports Hatch has privately told friends he won't seek an eighth term in office, leaving the slot wide open for former presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
Hatch's office fired back, issuing a statement accusing reporters of rehashing a story that he has previously rebutted.
"Nothing has changed since the Atlantic published a carbon copy of this same story in April, likely with the same anonymous sources who were no more informed on the senator's thinking than they seem to be now," Dave Hansen, a Hatch campaign consultant, said in the statement.
"Sen. Hatch is focused on leading the Senate's efforts to pass historic tax reform, confirming strong judges to courts around the country, and continuing to fight through the gridlock to deliver results for Utah," Hansen continued. "He has not made a final decision about whether or not to seek re-election, but plans to by the end of the year."
In an interview last month, Hatch, 83, told the Deseret News he would make a decision about retiring "by the end of the year."
"I don't know anybody who's busier than I am in the Congress of the United States, and I'm handling very important things," Hatch said at the time. "I have said I intend to run, and certainly that decision will be made, probably by the end of the year."
He also wanted to continue working on issues such tax reform, he said at the time.
Asked why he enjoys his role in Congress, where he has served for 42 years and is currently chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, Hatch said, "Frankly, I've stayed here because I make a difference."
In the meantime, Hatch hasn't rolled back his fundraising efforts, adding $945,382 to the $4.7 million in his campaign war chest from July through September, according his latest Federal Election Commission report.
Amidst mounting whispers about what Hatch will do next, Jason Perry, head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics, pointed out that Romney has been notably quiet.
"The rumors are escalating and becoming more fervent from people, and Mitt Romney has not done anything to make anyone think otherwise," Perry said Friday, "and in the absence of information, people are just speculating."
Romney, who now calls Utah home, has been readying himself for the 2018 election if Hatch opts not to run, according to media reports.
Romney has not commented on the reports, but he brought up the Senate race in a February interview with the Deseret News and suggested he might run for office again in Utah.
"All doors are open," Romney said at the time, though he added, "I'm not looking forward to anything political at the national level.
On the other hand, Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, has said he would "almost certainly" run if Hatch bows out. Stewart has represented Utah's 2nd Congressional District since 2013 and is a member of the House Intelligence Committee.
Romney, 70, served as governor of Massachusetts, was the GOP's nominee for president in 2012, and ran the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.
With that history, Perry noted that Romney is a popular potential candidate, even without announcing he's running. According to a Hinckley Institute poll, an estimated 44 percent of voters already back Romney, Perry said.
"If he decides to run for the Senate, he's going to do really well," he said.
Perry emphasized that "this is a decision for Sen. Hatch, and no one is going to make it for him." And until he does, those hoping to take his seat are likely to downplay their interest, he said.16 comments on this story
"Because he is such a great campaigner and people have such respect for him …most candidates are not willing to come out and say they're running out of deference to him," Perry said. "If he makes the decision not to run, we will see people start exploring that in earnest."
For anyone else hoping to run for Hatch's seat, time is of the essence, Perry said.
"The longer Sen. Hatch waits on this decision, the worse it is for the candidates that don't have a campaign going, the harder it is for them to raise funds, and in the end, the harder it will be for them to have any kind of name recognition that gets them anywhere near Mitt Romney," he said.
Contributing: Dennis Romboy